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Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory

Sarah Ward

Repetition hampers this crusading documentary, despite its vital and heartfelt message and remarkable real-life stories.
Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory

Ninety-year-old Angela addresses the camera, lamenting that she has forgotten so much. When asked about what life was like when she was younger, she is resigned to not being able to remember most of her life, clearly feeling both sorrowful and powerless. Then a set of headphones is placed upon her head, and a rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In” begins to play. The music sparks her memory, including specific details of childhood incidences. The visible transformation is remarkable, of the kind thought impossible only moments earlier.

This is not an isolated case, as crusading documentary Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory explains. Director and narrator Michael Rossato-Bennett was asked to spend a day filming Dan Cohen, a social worker who cared for the elderly for much of his career, then founded non-profit organization Music and Memory. Six years ago, he volunteered at a nursing home, and asserts that what he experienced there changed his life. That single day Rossato-Bennett recorded Cohen's efforts became three years more, inspiring this, his first film.

Peppered throughout the feature, weary faces change from lost and isolated to lively and engaged using Cohen’s music therapy. The parade of figures profoundly affected not only by music in general, but by personalised playlists in particular, is as astonishing as it is uplifting. Most suffer from dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, plus a raft of physical ailments, yet are swiftly moved to lucidity and mobility – even if only momentarily – by simply listening to a familiar tune. These are the real-life, feel-good stories that linger, and tap into the communal consciousness; everyone knows what it is like to react to their favourite song, the feelings inspired, and the corresponding sweep of nostalgia.

Heavy on data and repetitively asserting its stance, there’s more to Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory, with the impact of Cohen’s work only part of the story. The film also contemplates the biological relationship between humans and music, explores the current approach to ageing, and delves into the accepted system of nursing homes that leaves the elderly buried in pharmaceuticals and languishing in hospital-like care. At its core sits questions of why: why such a simple technique has been overlooked thus far, why society has devolved to demonising getting older, and why there is such resistance to changing the status quo. A chorus of expert talking heads join the many carers and family members in giving voice to their opinions on the topic. 

It is impossible for the documentary’s graduated series of statements not to hit their moving mark; however the strength of the film – even carrying such a vital and heartfelt message – is humbled by the way it is constructed. Empathy overflows, but so too does awkwardness, increasing with each CGI explanation and archival montage. Seemingly more concerned with advocacy of the broader cause than telling the tales of the people within, the feature’s activist angle grows to the point of overpowering its initially personal approach, which remains its most potent element. There’s power and passion in Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory, but there’s also pushing the best of intentions past their limit.

Rating: 2.5 stars out of 5

Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory
Director: Michael Rossato-Bennett
US, 2014, 78 mins

Transitions Film Festival
13 February – 6 March 

About the author

Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic, arts and culture writer, and film festival organiser. She is the Australia-based critic for Screen International, a film reviewer and writer for ArtsHub, the weekend editor and a senior writer for Concrete Playground, a writer for the Goethe-Institut Australien’s Kino in Oz, and a contributor to SBS, SBS Movies and Flicks Australia. Her work has been published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Junkee, FilmInk, Birth.Movies.Death, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, Broadsheet, Televised Revolution, Metro Magazine, Screen Education and the World Film Locations book series. She is also the editor of Trespass Magazine, a film and TV critic for ABC radio Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, and has worked with the Brisbane International Film Festival, Queensland Film Festival, Sydney Underground Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow her on Twitter: @swardplay