Dan Cohen, founder of the nonprofit organization Music & Memory, fights against a broken healthcare system to demonstrate music's ability to combat memory loss and restore a deep sense of self to those suffering from it.
'Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory' is an uplifting and unpretentious documentary which shows us how music can arouse individuals whose minds may have been compromised due to age or disability. Director Michael Rossato-Bennett follows the work of Dan Cohen, a social worker and founder of a nonprofit organization called Music & Memory, over the course of three years. Mr. Cohen actively demonstrates what is essentially a healing power of music, and his cause draws attention to the social castigation and personal deterioration of the elderly and the disabled.
For people living in nursing care homes, portable stereos are the ideal mechanism to provide the individual stimulus. We are introduced to several withdrawn residents, including several men and women of advanced age suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s (as well as a younger man suffering from multiple sclerosis), all of whom clearly become more responsive and more physically active when fitted with headphones playing their favorite tunes from an iPod. It’s one thing for a documentary to describe a theory, it’s quite another to see it happen right before our very eyes. These moments have to be seen to be believed, and there are enough of them to make even the most cynical and jaded among us gasp with delight and blink back a few tears of joy.
As an amateur student and fan of music (in a past life, I used to review CDs for a monthly publication and played in a youth orchestra), I already had a deep appreciation of how a simple melody or a familiar instrumental can engage one’s emotions. What I never even considered was how deep and long-lasting such an effect could be, especially to psychologically. The film discusses how music can be a “backdoor to the mind” by explaining how it enters the brain and provides a complex stimulation of “motion and emotion.” The neurological and physiological discussions are rather brief, with the majority of the focus being placed on the results rather than the cause.
The issue of the societal status (or lack thereof) and care for the elderly is naturally discussed in considerable detail. In particular, considerable screen time is given to Dr. Bill Thomas, a gerentologist and patient advocate. He directly addresses the problems with the health care system and how modern American society simply chooses to ignore old people. He comments on the overuse of pharmaceuticals (discussed in greater detail on the deleted scenes) and how Americans do not encourage learning from older adults, and therefore, don’t give provide them with an activity or stimulus for living. His points are delivered intelligently and directly, without the preaching, propaganda (unless of course, it’s discovered that both Dr. Thomas and Dan Cohen are on Apple’s payroll) and without the grandstanding politics. Even while praising those caretakers who do their best on the job, Dr. Thomas points out nursing homes thinks of their residents as “patients first, human beings second.”
For those fortunate enough to have family support at home, the accessibility of music is as simple as someone turning on the radio. However, the absence of privacy and lack of personal visitors in a health care facility doesn’t provide that kind of convenience. Cohen points out that with over 16,000 nursing homes and the bureaucracy that comes with that kind of institution, implementing his idea is very much a work in progress. Of course, whether there are any permanent or long-term effects to this music stimulation has yet to be known. (On the other hand, doesn’t our own shared mortality render the idea of “permanence” to be irrelevant?)
On a technical level, Mr. Rossato-Bennett’s work is as engaging as its subject-matter. Narration is kept at a minimum, and interviews with medical experts and historians are likewise succinct and to the point. Instead, the film wisely sets aside such commentary and detailed expositions as bonus features, so as not to distract from the emotional transformations which occur right before our very eyes. In an attempt to visualize the memories of the patients, a montage of animated photographs and home movies are often presented during their listening sessions. This cinematic device proves to be effective without being insincerely manipulative There are times when the viewer hears the music “leaking” through the headphones of the individual, and other times when the music is played back in full stereophonic fidelity. The former approach allows us to focus on a person’s outward responses while in the privacy of their own listening experience, whereas the latter effect allows us to share the pleasure of the music itself.
Of course, the most emotionally uplifting moments come when the camera simply focuses on an a man waving his arms in the air as he conducts the orchestra playing in his head, or the woman who pushes her walker away so that she can dance freely to a bouncy Latin beat. More than once did I feel a lump in my throat seeing someone who appeared emotionless and immobile suddenly smile and gesticulate within moments of hearing a few phrases of their favorite tune. ‘Alive Inside’ is as informative as it is touching, and the kind of film which makes one want to share with others immediately upon viewing.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
‘Alive Inside’ is presented on a single platter Blu-ray in a standard keepcase. The main feature and almost all of the supplements are presented in 1.78 widescreen ratio using MPEG-AVC encoding.
The high definition video is generally excellent throughout, with notable differences in picture quality being dependent on the environment. Since much of ‘Alive Inside’ takes place in the often artificially lit confines of a hospital, images may appear less uniform and crisp than some of the more controlled interview shots of musicians and doctors. Yet there was never a point where I was distracted by distortions or artifacts. Other visuals make us of stock footage and other graphics, which naturally vary in quality but have nothing to do with the quality of the high definition transfer. Overall, the video is as sharp and revealing as any modern day documentary and is a pleasure to watch.
Soundtracks include 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio (the Blu-ray packaging indicates DTS Digital Surround, but in fact the higher quality audio codec is presented) and PCM Stereo, with little sonic difference between the two other than the surround channels getting a better workout with the music score. Considering the logistics of mixing in natural dialogue (sometimes murmured or mumbled) in a less than acoustically ideal environment, along with a music played back through headphones, voice-over narration, as well as a dramatic original score, it’s amazing that the sound quality is as clear and as dynamic as what’s presented. Surround sound activity consists primarily of Itaal Shur’s memorable compositions, which evokes emotional responses congruent to what the patient’s hear onscreen.
Director’s Commentary (HD) - Michael Rossato- Bennett provides a commentary which is extensive, thorough and insightful, with many compliments given (justifiably) to the people onscreen, including caretakers, musicians and activists. However, he also resists talking over the more emotional moments in the film (for example, a smiling woman chokes up when she sees her husband singing along to a popular tune). Nitpickers might find his discussion to be a little too fervent, but I had no complaints.
Deleted Scenes (HD, 35:05) - These segments run over half an hour and include some additional examples of others people re-introducing music into the lives of their disabled parents, a more detailed interview with Dr. Bill Thomas, and expanded scenes with patients spotlighted in the main feature.
Ask Dan Cohen (HD, 13:36) - This interview is an updated discussion with the documentary’s primary advocate. He covers several topics and addresses questions normally presented to him, outlining methods to restoring music to the elderly, promoting his cause to local institutions and following up on the general reception of the film.
Michael Rossato-Bennett Interview (HD, 19:00) - This segment provides further discussion into the subject of the elderly and is divided into sub-topics, but without chapter stops.
Alive Inside Soundtrack (HD, 30:43) - Creatively presented, this featurette is a scripted study of the films score, composed by the director’s brother Itaal Shur. Individually titled tracks are played in stereo, with comments made by the composer. Details regarding themes, musical influences, music theory, and instrumentation are provided, which are invaluable for soundtrack geeks such as myself. (If only all Blu-rays went into such details about their scores.)
Trailer (HD, 2:16) - This preview effectively delivers the message of the movie, but also includes brief shots and interview snippets which apparently didn’t make the final cut.
My only complaint regarding the features on this Blu-ray is the lack of subtitles, which should really be standard for fact-filled documentaries. There were times when I wanted to more clearly understand what a patient was saying, and written words would have helped.
The title “Alive Inside” accurately applies both to the patients involved in the music therapy, as well as how most audiences will feel after viewing. It would be unfair of me to burden this documentary with any further excessive praise, especially since it’s already been well-received by other critics, but needless to say, it is highly recommended.