By Paul Risker.
Earth: a world of sound within a vacuum, despite the best efforts of science fiction to convince us otherwise. Then there is the metaphysical question of a tree falling in a forest that confronts the very ontology of sound. In my own contemplation of music there are two thoughts that echo the loudest. The first is the theory that to describe why a piece of music touches you is to undermine the reason why you love that said piece of music, and the second are the words of Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons: “Music is food for our souls.”
Music is a sensory experience that touches us on a deeply personal level, and engages in a dance with our psyche or soul. So it remains one of the most penetrating of experiences, and without music one’s life is deprived of the vitality of the intimate connection which is fundamental to the experience of life. So to disagree with Woody Allen, there are a multitude of subjective musical reasons why life is worth living outside of the second movement of Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony – a world comprised of billions of personal connections with music.
Alive Inside observes Dan Cohen’s – founder of the non-profit organization Music & Memory – interaction with a range of individuals inside and outside of the American healthcare system. Heavily laden with facts and opinions, Michael Rossato-Bennett wisely structures his documentary not as a hypothesis to be proven or disproven, but rather proving his hypothesis has validity through one man’s remarkable rediscovery of his sense of self through music. The discussion spirals outwards to create layers within its remit of exploring the therapeutic components of music to touch upon the historical narrative of the collision of the welfare and healthcare system, the inability of a healthcare system to resolve its issues and its insular mind-set, to the positive to negative evolution of the attitudes of the “elderly” phase of life.
Full of zeal, Cohen is a powerful protagonist as a champion of the basic right of human identity, and the right to the means to sustain it in the shadow of the counterproductive forces of capitalism and an insular healthcare system.
Despite its shades of optimism or reasons for positive thoughts, Alive Inside is not without its shadow. The discussion of the elderly paints an alarming picture of a storm front building on the horizon whose clouds are a deepening charcoal black. Despite the re-alignment of the proportions of the three age groups, there remains an alarming lack of foresight that predicts a future that will be forced to suffer for the sins of the past and the present. Whilst we may have raised the average age of life expectancy, Alive Inside looks to a habitual abandonment of the elderly, where effective therapeutic treatments to sustain a sense of identity over conventional medication is a battleground upon which change for the better is slow.
Psychology is built on the premise that to mature it is essential that we have life experiences, and as we enter that phase of life where we are susceptible to dementia and Alzheimer’s, Cohen champions the ways in which we can retain that sense of self that makes us human, preventing the total psychological or emotional death before death in the physical sense occurs. It is through such honest reflection that Alive Inside captures a glimpse into a tragic chapter of modern life, and strikes without reservation a nerve by depicting a future where elders are retired from service.
In moments the footage inside the nursing homes, of what one might cynically call a piece of real estate belonging to a mass business enterprise, frames the elderly as ghosts who are detached from the world, yet are still an occupying presence – an unsettling prediction of our own fate, of frail old age best kept out of sight. But the intention of such places and the people working within them is not wholly negative. Alive Inside offers optimism if individuals such as Dan Cohen are willing to push to make a difference. Even in a broken system there are many who care and who are shackled by the system itself. The social attitude towards ageing is a more complex one to resolve, in that it requires a rewiring of the social consciousness and a return to old values. It may require us to compromise our social and technological evolution to ensure the health and sustainability of the human experience.
The journey Alive Inside takes us on offers an opportunity to reassess the importance of music in our own lives, and more broadly to revaluate the connections we forge with art and ideas. What shines through in this critique and celebration is the endurance of the human spirit, or rather music as a life sustaining force. Cohen captures a snapshot of how those suffering from dementia, Alzheimer’s and other mental illnesses can reconnect with themselves through music. But what is truly remarkable is that we reconnect to music, an external force, through the internal imagination or mind of an individual or group of individuals. It is an in and out journey, a touching one that marks Beethoven’s words that “Music is a higher revelation than all Wisdom and Philosophy.”
Alive Inside captures these truths as a compelling and emotionally arousing documentary, both inquisitive and reflective. While depicting music’s healing powers, the film offers a sense of human intimacy by revealing one of our most significant relationships to art.
Paul Risker is a critic and writer for a number of on-line and print publications, including Little White Lies, Flickering Myth, Starburst Magazine, and VideoScope. He is currently based in the United Kingdom.