×

Sundance Film Review: ‘Alive Inside’

Michael Rossato-Bennett captures some amazingly transformative results in the treatment of dementia through music.

With:

Dan Cohen, Oliver Sacks, Samite Mulondo, Bobby McFerrin, Yvonne Russell, Louise Dueno, Cheryl Velez, Connie Tomaino, Bill Thomas, Michelle Van Nostrand, G. Allen Power, Naomi Feil, Kathy Greenlee, Bonnie Kantor, Peter Whitehouse, Peter Davies. 

“Alive Inside” is a PSA-style salute to Nassau County, N.Y.-based social worker Dan Cohen and his nonprofit Music and Memory organization, which advocates for the use of iPods in treating senior citizens who suffer from dementia. Directed by first-timer Michael Rossato-Bennett, who captured some amazingly transformative results as Cohen applied headphones to nursing-home residents, the docu is unfortunately devoid of stats that would specify the treatment’s effectiveness; all we see is a string of happy customers rockin’ to the beat. Still, it’s precisely the sight of enlivened elders that beautifies and justifies the pic, an audience award winner at Sundance.

Known here by their first names only, the film’s senior subjects invariably respond to music in miraculous fashion. John, a quiet Army vet who served at Los Alamos, perks up at the sound of the Andrews Sisters, practically dancing in his chair. Denise, a bipolar schizophrenic and Schubert fan, pushes away the walking frame she’d been using every day for two years and begins to dance. Inert and depressed, the Cab Calloway-loving Henry is fully rejuvenated by music, swaying his arms and crooning “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” in perfect pitch.

Rossato-Bennett’s over-the-top narration often sounds cloying and banal. (“Music touches us all,” he says at one point, punctuating every word. “How deep does it run inside us?”) But the filmmaker succeeds in providing context, medical and historical, in between awakenings. Neurologist Oliver Sacks explains that musical memories can withstand the ravages of Alzheimer’s better than other kinds. Bill Thomas, an activist geriatrician, denounces an elder-care system in which pricey and often ineffective meds are approved for use more swiftly than $40 mp3 players.

Popular on Variety

The film traces the origins of the nursing home to the late 1800s, when changes in technology and family structures encouraged the convenient displacing of elders, and it dates the rise of the elder-care industry to 1965, the year in which Medicare and Medicaid were instituted. Currently, 5 million Americans suffer from dementia; the docu mentions that the number will nearly double within the next 10 years.

As if mindful of philosopher Immanuel Kant’s definition of music as the “quickening art,” Rossato-Bennett keeps the film moving briskly, spreading flashes of humor across a lean running time to help mitigate the fundamentally sad nature of the material. Home-movie images and swirls of colored light periodically accompany the subjects’ reinvigorated state. Other tech credits are solid.

Sundance program materials refer to the film as “Alive Inside: A Story of Music & Memory.”

Sundance Film Review: ‘Alive Inside’

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 25, 2014. Running time: 77 MIN.

Production:

A Projector Media production in association with Impact Partners, Artemis Rising Foundation. Produced by Michael Rossato-Bennett, Alexandra McDougald. Executive producers, Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation, Eric J. Bertrand, Limore Shur, Ben Spivak, Regina Scully. Co-executive producers, Geralyn Dreyfous, Dan Cogan, Diana Barrett.

Crew:

Directed, written by Michael Rossato-Bennett. Camera (color/B&W, HD), Shachar Langley; editors, Mark Demolar, Manuel Tsingaris, Rossato-Bennett; music, Itaal Shur; music supervisor, Barry Cole; sound, Eli Cohn; associate producers, Jonathan Clasberry, Cole.

With:

Dan Cohen, Oliver Sacks, Samite Mulondo, Bobby McFerrin, Yvonne Russell, Louise Dueno, Cheryl Velez, Connie Tomaino, Bill Thomas, Michelle Van Nostrand, G. Allen Power, Naomi Feil, Kathy Greenlee, Bonnie Kantor, Peter Whitehouse, Peter Davies. 

More Film

  • Andy SambergVariety Sundance Studio presented by

    Andy Samberg Calls Hosting the Oscars a 'Bad Gig' -- That He'd Still Consider

    Andy Samberg has been a reliable favorite hosting awards ceremonies, in recent years emceeing the Independent Spirit Awards, the Emmys and the 2019 Golden Globes with Sandra Oh. So it’s only natural to wonder if Samberg would consider taking the reins on the Oscars, which will return again this year without a host. “They have [...]

  • Shirley

    'Shirley': Film Review

    Shirley Jackson was a real person, a writer best known for her twisted short story “The Lottery,” although the version presented in Josephine Decker’s “Shirley” feels more like a character from one of her own novels. Featuring “The Handsmaid’s Tale” actor Elisabeth Moss in the title role, this queer, hard-to-quantify psychological study isn’t a biopic [...]

  • Us Kids

    'Us Kids': Film Review

    The nonstop drama of the Trump White House has succeeded, among other things, in largely pushing gun control from the forefront of the news cycle — no doubt to the relief of the NRA and its allies, despite the continued frequency of U.S. mass shootings. As a result, and perhaps unfairly, Kim A. Snyder’s “Us [...]

  • Logan Paul Ninja Spree

    How Logan Paul and Ninja Helped 'Spree' Cast Capture Influencer Culture Gone Wild

    When it came to depicting the gonzo nature of influencer culture, “Spree” stars Joe Keery and Sasheer Zamata and director Eugene Kotlyarenko did a deep dive into the haves and have-nots of the internet. “Spree,” which premiered Friday at Sundance Film Festival, follows a rideshare driver named Kurt Kunkle (Keery) who will stop at nothing [...]

  • The Go Go's at Chicagofest in

    'The Go-Go's': Film Review

    In the terrific documentary “The Go-Go’s,” there’s a tasty clip of the band playing an early club gig in 1979, when they were part of the L.A. punk scene. They wear bushy black hair and pale white makeup (with rouge!), as if they were trying to be mannequin versions of Darby Crash, and they have [...]

  • A PERFECTLY NORMAL FAMILY

    Watch the Exclusive Trailer of Rotterdam/Goteborg Entry ‘A Perfectly Normal Family’

    Variety has been given exclusive access to the international trailer of the Danish film “A Perfectly Normal Family,” due to compete both at Rotterdam’s Big Screen Competition, and at Göteborg’s Nordic Film Competition. Malou Reyman’s debut feature has been a hot property for sales agent New Europe Film Sales, ever since it was sneak peeked [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content