There’s little debate as to the emotional power of good music. It’s hard to imagine “Star Wars” without the soaring compositions of John Williams, and a well-selected oldies soundtrack was key to this summer’s biggest box office success, “Guardians of the Galaxy.”
But a new documentary from filmmaker Michael Rossato-Bennett suggests that music may hold powers greater than what we’ve imagined. “Alive Inside” traces the efforts of the Music & Memory project, an effort built on the theory that music can unlock doors of memory that have been closed by disease.
The project is spearheaded by Dan Cohen, who began using music therapy on nursing home residents over three years ago. Cohen found that playing familiar songs for elderly residents suffering from various debilitating diseases worked wonders in bringing them out of their shells.
Rossato-Bennett became captivated by Cohen’s efforts, and spent three years following him with a video camera as he worked with different patients. The final product won an Audience Award for U.S. Documentary at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
Early in the film we meet Henry, a 94-year-old man suffering from dementia. Initially he’s hunched over in his wheelchair, hiding his face and cut off from the world around him. But soon after Cohen gives him some headphones and starts playing some big band tunes, Henry sits up, eyes bulging, and starts raving about how much he loves Cab Calloway.
Scenes with other patients follow, all meant to underscore the idea that music can act as a “back door into the mind,” releasing patients trapped by diseases such as dementia, bipolar schizophrenia and even multiple sclerosis. None of the residents are cured of their diseases, but their recognition is unmistakable, and the energy and life they exude is heartwarming.
The premise is pretty simple, but “Alive Inside” soon introduces us to the challenges inherent to Cohen’s cause. Music & Memory is a low-cost, simple therapy, yet because it is viewed as a peripheral luxury and isn’t connected to the pharmaceutical industry, Cohen has difficulty getting administrators to embrace it as a serious practice.
Admittedly, Rossato-Bennett doesn’t spend a lot of time digging into the validity of this claim, choosing rather to transition into a critique of the nursing home industry itself and the diminished role of the elderly in contemporary society. It breaks down the genesis of the nursing home model, and questions the inferred notion that human beings are increasingly useless the farther they get from their physical “prime.”
Despite the program's struggles, “Alive Inside” delivers a strong message of hope, and is packed with charming moments, including a very encouraging ending. As a documentary, its strength lies in its message more than its production. Rossato-Bennett’s efforts are sound, if pretty routine. Some creative cinematography does manage to spice things up a bit, even though some of the shots feel unnecessary. The most powerful moments occur when the camera lingers on its subjects, letting the audience feel their isolation and share in their joy.
At just over an hour and 15 minutes, “Alive Inside” is a worthwhile reminder that life is a beautiful thing, and that something as simple as music can unlock the life within our most isolated peers.
“Alive Inside” is not rated, but contains no objectionable content. It will be screened at the Art House Cinema 502 in Ogden and other select locations throughout the state. Check "Special Screenings" on C2 for more information.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. More of his work is at woundedmosquito.com.