Henry is an old man with limited brain capacity, 10 years into his indefinite nursing-home sentence. He’s grouchy, and nearly mute. His nurse places headphones over his ears and plays music he remembers from his youth—jazz, bebop, and Cab Calloway. Henry’s eyes light up, he sings along in a high warble, and he responds to questions about his past, even when the interviewer rejects the directive to only ask yes-or-no queries. It’s a remarkable moment, a reaffirmation that there is always life to those who listen for it.
Henry’s story was relayed first in a 2012 viral video, and the documentary Alive Inside is like a feature-length adaptation of the six-minute medical-science snapshot. The man who brought him music—the traveling bard to the elderly—is Dan Cohen, a tall, quiet gentleman who runs the nonprofit Music & Memory. He has a background in software and social work, and he visits nursing homes to play music for Alzheimer’s and dementia patients, seeking to unlock stimuli in their brains that will let them sing along or recall past memories. First-time director Michael Rossato-Bennett follows Cohen on these expeditions, inserting vintage still photos and home movies to represent his subjects’ recalled thoughts.
Cohen’s on-camera presence is lukewarm; one reason, perhaps, why the film barely engages with his backstory. Rossato-Bennett creates the impression that Cohen materialized out of nowhere, iPod and headphones in hand, searching for seniors to comfort. He stays out of frame for much of the film, which can make the documentary feel impersonal, but also helps steer Alive Inside away from the Messiah complex that too often plagues social-action docs. Cohen’s goal—to bring music to every nursing home—is modest, and the film is smart to follow his lead by keeping bombastic rhetoric to a minimum. Strangely, though, the movie lacks any discussion of professional music therapists, who have been doing this kind of work for decades. A casual viewer might determine that Cohen was the first man in history to put headphones on a sick person.
True to its roots, Alive Inside has the cheery, simplified imagery of a viral video, as one senior citizen after another straps on headphones and rocks out to music. Apart from brief testimonials by celebrity neurologist Oliver Sacks, there isn’t much discussion of the science; at more than one point, the screen displays a 3-D model of the brain, only to haphazardly splash pink digital confetti across it. But at a mere 73 minutes, this Sundance Audience Award winner isn’t trying to be a comprehensive science movie. It’s trying to be the kind of movie that wins Sundance Audience Awards. When things threaten to get too heavy, Rossato-Bennett cuts to another happy elder, or another YouTube selection. (The little kid who mimes conducting Beethoven’s Fifth is a great choice.)
Thankfully, there’s a bit more substance in the middle stretch, as the film morphs into a back-door critique of the nursing-home industrial complex. Tracing the evolution of senior care since the days before Social Security, Rossato-Bennett argues, convincingly, that the U.S. suffers from a lack of resources for geriatric care, plus a Big Pharma mindset that favors pills and more pills over therapeutic treatments like music. Many of the patients Cohen works with receive no visitors and are likely being overprescribed anti-depressants, and it’s easy to see why they light up like Henry when the cameras are there.
At times, Alive Inside’s editing style, which renders subjects as before/after cases, skirts dangerously close to Dr. Oz-like Miracle Cure territory. But ultimately, Cohen isn’t hawking anything more dangerous than the Beach Boys and a few extra hours with grandma. If, 60 years from now, millennials are keeping their minds sharp by grooving to “Fancy” in their retirement homes, more power to them.