by Kathie Smith
We all have a picture in our heads of mental institutions and nursing homes that has at least a few elements from Miloš Forman’s tenable film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest—inhumane caverns where abuse of power and overuse of medication go hand in hand and where even the most tenacious personality can be deflated. This is an extreme vision that no doubt gives progressive facilities a bad name, but also one that is occasionally supported by the news headlines. Although elder care centers perform a necessary function for a growing population of senior citizens, I think we all see a nursing home as a last resort for both our loved ones and ourselves.
Director: Michael Rossato-Bennett
Producers: Alexandra McDougald, Regina Kulik Scully, Michael Rossato-Bennett
Writer: Michael Rossato-Bennett
Cinematographer: Shachar Langlev
Editor: Mark Demolar, Michael Rossato-Bennett, Manuel Tsingaris
Music: Itaal Shur
Premiere: January 18, 2014 – Sundance Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: July 18, 2014
US Distributor: Projector Media
As described in Michael Rossato-Bennett’s documentary Alive Inside, nursing homes are the product of an unhealthy marriage between state run poorhouses of yesteryear and the well-oiled machines of hospitals, offering a clinical repository for those unable to take care of themselves. But what Rossato-Bennett’s eye-opening movie also depicts is a simple solution to provide a little levity to otherwise lifeless individuals though the power of music. On a one-day shoot that turned into three years, Rossato-Bennett followed social worker Dan Cohen on his mission to bring joy to nursing home patients one iPod Shuffle and one pair of headphones at a time.
It was over two years ago when a short clip of Alive Inside went viral, showing Henry, a man slumped over in his wheelchair, and how he is brought to life with music. His therapist slips on his headphones and turns on his iPod, and Henry’s eyes immediately light up, he raises his head and starts humming along. Even more significant, when the headphones are slipped off, Henry has the ability to express himself and remember things that were previously out of reach for him. This kind of transformation is seen over and over again with a variety of patients—their eyes clouded by the pain of medication, confusion and frustration—as life is somehow magically restored to their faces.
Cohen is the founder of Music & Memory, a nonprofit that facilitates iPod donations to nursing homes and attempts to raise awareness about music therapy. As might be expected, music is not recognized as a viable medical intervention within the established health care system, and as a result, state or federal funding for such a project will be slow in coming if it ever does. You can write a $1000 prescription with the wave of a hand, one doctor points out, but ask for a $60 personal music system and then you are looking for a fight.
Alive Inside, however, makes an incredibly compelling argument at least for those who take the opportunity to see it. For the duration of its extremely efficient 78 minutes, it feels like a force with the equivalence of a sea change, offering modest yet easy solutions to an imperfect system of care giving. In addition to the credible on-screen proof of patients, Alive Inside enlists the perspective of neurologist and author Oliver Sacks (whose 2007 book Musicophilia provides a fascinating study on how music effects the brain) and the selfless work of musician Samite Mulondo, the Executive Director of Musicians for World Harmony. Rossato-Bennett effectively touches on the science of music and the ubiquitous effect it has on humans while also underscoring a broken health care system that leaves nursing homes in its wake (not to mention the emotional effect of moving into such a facility).
Despite the evidence, the real inspiration lies in the personal effect you see in individuals: Gil, who suffers from depression and is lifted out of his frustration by The Shirelles “Will You Love Me Tomorrow”; Denise, a heartbreaking bipolar patient, who is given a little exuberance with some salsa music; Steve with Muscular Sclerosis who is granted a little peace by being reconnected with his music; or Marylou, riddled with confusion from her Alzheimer’s, who is receives a reprieve with a Beach Boys song. Alive Inside is an unapologetic movie with a message but also a moving testament to the power of music and compassion. Its emotional call to action resonates well beyond the demographics hat seem to separate us all—everyone ages. There’s not much to argue with in Alive Inside, and on this occasion it’s okay to forget about the cinematic experience and embrace the humanitarian one. Donate an iPod and make your playlist, as well as your parent’s and grandparent’s, now.