Movies don’t change lives.
Religion can change lives. Falling in love can, and so can becoming a parent. Tragedy, alas, is hugely effective at creating change, albeit painfully.
But movies? Not really.
Except nobody seems to have told this to the makers of “Alive Inside,” a devastating, incredibly inspiring documentary about the power of music.
Michael Rossato-Bennett‘s documentary follows the efforts of Dan Cohen, a volunteer whose personal mission in life is to bring music to Alzheimer’s patients.
He does it with an iPod, a pair of headphones and playlists specially built to reflect the music these individuals enjoyed in their primes.
“Music connects people with who they have been, who they are and their lives,” Cohen says. “Because what happens when you get old is all the things you’re familiar with, your identity, are all just being peeled away.”
Early in the film Cohen works his magic on a 94-year-old man who has been more or less vegetative for years. With the music playing, the man comes alive. He sings along, he claps his hands and waves. And, astoundingly, he begins holding a conversation with Cohen. It’s the first time he’s really talked to another human being in ages.
This story is repeated over and over in “Alive Inside.” Music therapy works for a woman with bi-polar disorder, who gets out of her wheelchair for the first time in two years and dances. A man isolated by multiple sclerosis. And with countless elderly individuals crippled by dementia.
Miracles are so commonplace in this film that at a certain point you stop choking up and start laughing. Can it really be this simple? Can listening to music accomplish what tons of heavy-duty (and obscenely expensive) prescription drugs have failed to do?
Yes, according to the professionals (among them the famous Oliver Saks) whom Rossato-Bennett interviews.
The film casts its net even wider, making the case that human beings are hard-wired to appreciate music, that it is an essential part of our psychic makeup. Did you know that the vocalizations of newborns are based on their rhythmic patterns of their mothers’ voices?
And then “Alive Inside” goes even further, vivisecting the American health care system (though in a nice way, since it wants to effect change, not create enemies) for adhering to a pattern of elder care based on physical and chemical imprisonment. We see Cohen struggling to place iPods in even a few nursing homes and coming up against a wall of institutional mistrust and, perhaps, jealousy.
This doc should be seen by every health care professional, and by anyone working in a nursing home. For that matter, it should be seen by everyone dealing with (or likely to deal with at some time) a loved one with Alzheimer’s — which is to say, every blessed one of us.
Some documentaries are a chore. “Alive Inside” is pure joy. Give it a chance and it can change the world.