Music has a miraculous effect on patients at an elder care facility.
The remarkable documentary Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory artfully weaves together material about two topics, one inspiring, one discouraging.
The inspiring topic, and the main focus, is the restorative power of music when it is played for people with memory loss. You'll be amazed to see this. Social worker Dan Cohen visits elderly people in nursing homes. They are severely disabled by dementia. Some sit slumped in chairs, motionless, unresponsive. Cohen puts headphones on them and, using iPod Shuffles, cues up music from when they were young -- Frankie Valli, Louis Armstrong.
In astonishing transformations, the people come to life. They dance in their chairs, weep with happiness, converse amiably, sing. Something incredible is happening in their brains. I'm certainly not equipped to discuss the science, but it seems like something from the strange casebook of neurologist Oliver Sacks, who indeed discusses the phenomenon in interview segments. These people are temporarily restored to lucidity by -- the Beach Boys' "I Get Around"? Their loved ones watch, and also weep. These scenes are so powerful that the skeptical part of me wondered if writer-director-producer Michael Rossato-Bennett was putting us on. But then I remembered that I also can be transported, moved beyond words, by hearing the music from my youth. I think this is related.
The discouraging topic is the state of elder care. Rossato-Bennett tells the unsettling story of how seniors came to be housed in nursing facilities in such large numbers, and how they are treated in these places. He describes a disturbing projected future in which more and more people live into advanced age, and there aren't enough resources to care for them. We get a sense of the elder-care bureaucracy's inflexibility as we follow Cohen's activities. His organization, Music & Memory, is trying to bring his iPod techniques to nursing facilities everywhere, with limited success.
Some of what we see could use more explanation. We're shown a younger multiple sclerosis patient who is bedridden, and who does seem to benefit from revisiting music from his past. But unlike the elderly patients, he doesn't appear to suffer from cognitive impairment or memory loss, so it's not clear how his music therapy relates to the older folks' dramatic transformations. Even a sentence or two of narration might have cleared this up.
There is another movie about this musical phenomenon, the fine 2011 drama The Music Never Stopped, based on a Sacks case history. In that film, a father is grateful when his son's memory is temporarily restored by his favorite music. The wry twist? The father really hates his son's favorite music. There's no wry twist in Alive Inside. These are scenes of unmitigated joy, and they will linger with you.