Alive Inside

by Kilian Melloy
Friday Jul 18, 2014
Alive Inside
  (Source:Sundance Institute)

When a social worker named Dan Cohen (founder of Music and Memory) invited a documentary filmmaker named Michael Rossato-Bennett to tag along for a single day to see what he was up to -- attempting to bring the transformative and healing power of music to the residents of America's nursing care facilities -- that one day sparked a three-year project to chart Cohen's progress... struggle, really... and record the astonishing responses of people suffering dementia, and other neurological conditions, to the music they loved.

If the premise of "Inside Alive" sounds like something from an Oliver Sacks book, well, Sacks himself appears here to talk about music and the ways in which the human brain is hardwired to appreciate and react to it. Music, Sacks tells us, lights up and engages the brain more comprehensively than any other form stimulus. Little wonder, then, that people who had nearly disappeared in a fog of dementia or listlessness might come bursting forth once again thanks to the customized contents of an iPod. (For a feature film version of a similar thesis, check out the 2011 Jim Kohlberg movie "The Music Never Stopped," which was inspired by an essay by Sacks titled "The Last Hippie.")

The film's science doesn't begin and end with the brain, but encompasses the heart, as well -- quite literally so; the narration informs us that fetal tissue produces "cells that beat in unison." These cells grow into the heart -- the primal, and universal, rhythm of human life.

The movie touches on the politics of health care, also. For most of human history, older people were revered by society and integral parts of their families. Industrial society changed all that. (No, Virginia, "gay marriage" and the sexual revolution didn't erode the "traditional family." A shift from agriculture to urban living and a focus on mechanical means of production did.) The modern health care system is heavily dependent on dosing elders with medications, and seeing them as symptoms more than as human beings; moreover, there's a reluctance to see older people as vital and mature. Rather, they are viewed as withered remnants of once-young and vital people. (Another point the film makes: Americans shudder at the thought of dependence, as opposed to individualistic independence. Older people are nothing if not dependent, often, on caregivers.) "Does elderhood have a place" in American society, the narration wonders?

But this is a film less concerned with science and politics than the sheer rapture on the faces of the older people who are almost literally brought back to life by it -- and the hopeful astonishment of those who wonder what they can do for their declining older relations. When a 94-year-old man named Henry is given a dose of that good old-time music, he brightens up and grows talkative; when a man named John, a World War II veteran, hears 1940's tunes, he sings and practically dances in his wheelchair.

So what's next? Will music therapy become part of standard care for elders -- as well as for others in long-term care, such as the relatively young man in a nursing home due to muscular sclerosis, or the woman with bipolar schizophrenia, both of whom are also profiled in this movie? Maybe, some day. Word is already spreading thanks to footage from this film having been posted on YouTube. This outrageous, simple idea may become a kind of crowd-sourced medical revolution.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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