“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.
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.”