“I’ve forgotten so much,” says the 90-year-old woman who opens the documentary Alive Inside. “I’m very sorry. I’ve forgotten what I did after I became a young lady. If I could tell you, I would.” Then a man gives her a tiny iPod and a pair of headphones and starts playing Louis Armstrong’s “When the Saints Go Marching In.” “Let the music take you back,” he suggests. And suddenly, precise details from her life come pouring out, starting with the fact that the woman’s mother told her not to go see Louis Armstrong. After a bit, the woman stops, amazed. “I didn’t know I could talk so much,” she marvels.
In 2006, tech-friendly social worker Dan Cohen got the bright idea to bring iPods loaded with personalized playlists to elderly nursing-home patients suffering from disconnection. Whether because of Alzheimer’s, dementia, or schizophrenia, these people had lost touch with the world, and with themselves. In at least a few instances, the results were dramatic — astonishing, thrilling, wonderful, you name it. The music would hit the patient’s ears, and you could see the lights go on behind their eyes. Cohen became a man on a mission, and Alive Inside is Michael Rossato-Bennett’s filmed account of that mission. There’s some science, some sociology, some criticism of Big Pharma, and some iffy cinematic representations of times gone by. But the main attractions here are the people: the ancient, marvelous, memorable human characters that Cohen wants to reach.
The film makes the case that societal changes brought on by the industrial revolution have served to shunt the elderly to the margins of society. Old folks, one doctor claims, are seen as broken adults: they’re poor consumers and unproductive in the labor department, so get ’em off the stage. It’s hard not to remember that notion when Cohen, after talking about his need for thousands of iPods, puts in a call to a certain company about a donation and finds they have “no corporate philanthropy policy.” Who is “they”? The film is careful not to say. But we do learn that Sandra Day O’Connor requested support for Alzheimer’s research from “The Man Himself,” and was rebuffed. Still, it’s worth remembering that iPods enable Cohen to do his very good work in the first place. Technology is a complicated business.
Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory
Ultimately, the film is more interested in advocacy than exploration or even investigation. It touches on the ways that music gets at memory, and it touches on the stated hesitancies of nursing homes to adopt Cohen’s method as a standard of care. But it’s not like we’re presented with findings from peer-reviewed studies, or specific accounts of brain activity, or detailed rebuttals from the naysayers. The film closes with a suggestion to visit musicandmemory.org, Cohen’s nonprofit, and it’s a suggestion you can see coming from early in the proceedings. I would have preferred a documentary that did more presenting and a little less pushing. But it’s an unquestionably worthy cause, and again, the scenes of music’s vivifying effect on old souls made for some of the most moving scenes I’ve seen all year.