Aging Gracefully

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Youth is valued in our society for its attractiveness and energy.  But two recent films at the Detroit Film Theatre (Ballets Russes) and the Michigan Theater (Neil Young: Heart of Gold) showed how older people can inspire us all to age more gracefully.

In Neil Young: Heart of Gold, the longtime rock’n’roll performer gathered some of his best friends together for a heartwarming concert at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee.  A sincere feeling of respect passed among the performers, who included country music star Emmylou Harris and Young’s wife Pegi.  The camera close-ups showed the unique personalities of the different musicians.  The applause from the crowd in the film was filled with affection and admiration.

I saw this film in Ann Arbor at the State Theater (on March 18, 2006) after it had finished its run at the Michigan (which programs films at the State).  As I watched the movie, I wondered how the different audience members felt about what they were seeing.  College students were watching someone whom their parents listened to when they were that same age.  Viewers who remembered the release of the 1972 album Harvest (featured prominently in the film) might have reflected on how well they had made it since then, compared to Young and the other performers.

Young has forged his own musical identity, with his unique combination of rock, folk and country music.  Mixed into his sound are an intriguing blend of introspection, rebellion and vulnerability.  Young’s film is a comeback of sorts.  The media buzz that surrounded the release last fall of the album Prairie Wind led me to buy my first Neil Young album in 25 years.  The accounts of his battle with a brain aneurysm added compelling depth to the story.

Prairie Wind came out at the same time as another album that showed a reflective, well-earned maturity—Paul McCartney’s Chaos and Creation in the Backyard.  The music on each album has a life-affirming intimacy that I’m sure will help contemporaries of these musicians move into their later years.  Both performers and fans are coming to terms with the effects of the popular music culture that took shape in the 1960s.

Ballets Russes

The same weekend that I saw Heart of Gold, I enjoyed (on March 19, 2006) performers in another art form recapture the spirit of their earliest triumphs.  The 2005 film Ballets Russes, which appeared at the Detroit Film Theatre, was a documentary about the Ballets Russes dance company that was started in Paris in 1909 with expatriates from Russia.  It included recent interviews with dancers who had performed in different versions of the company.

It was very poignant to see elderly ballet dancers re-tracing the steps of their youth.  They displayed a contemplative, well-earned beauty that had more depth than the youthful images that fill modern entertainment and advertising.  In their faces, the histories of their emotional lives were etched in their wrinkles, dimples, eyes and smiles.

The sweeping, dramatic music had a tinge of melancholy that underscored the beauty—and transience—of these artists’ accomplishments.  I felt a mixture of sadness and joy knowing that many of these energetic spirits were nearing life’s end.  In their later years, these dancers achieved other triumphs that were just as significant as their stage accomplishments.  Insight.  Understanding.  Acceptance.  Appreciation.

Old films and photographs showed these dancers at different stages of their lives.  The combination of films with contemporary interviews connected the viewer with the far past.  Adding to the drama was the disruption of the artists’ careers by World War II.  These ballet artists had established their fame, they were traveling the world, and then things changed.

Heart of Gold and Ballets Russes are constructed in different ways, and show how documentary filmmaking has evolved into a rich form of film expression.  Ballets Russes uses a multimedia combination of still photos, old and new films of dancing, and recent interviews.  It used many tones of montage to make its points.  Heart of Gold is mostly a variety of deft camera angles of a live musical performance.  Director Jonathan Demme deserves special credit for the planning, coordination and editing that went into the production of this film.

Both films lifted my spirits.  The immediacy of the camera work in Heart of Gold left me transfixed until the final credits rolled off the screen.  The uniquely intimate State Theater felt like a large nightclub.  Watching Ballets Russes made me appreciate the preservation by the filmmakers (Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller) of the history of this ballet troupe through archival material and reminiscences.

In both movies, I saw the wisdom of intelligent reflection.  At some point, we all have to look at the meaning of our life; may we do it as well as the people in these two beautiful films.


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Copyright © 2006 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.

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