Interview with Bob Cilman

In front of a red and blue television backdrop, Bob Cilman — with his glasses perched on top of his head — squints as he talks.

Bob Cilman, the director of the Young@Heart Chorus, talks about how he began working with senior citizens, the way songs are selected, and the music videos featured in the film.

Independent Lens: How did you get involved with the chorus? Had you worked with seniors before?

Bob Cilman: No, I had not worked with seniors before. I was working in the arts with a theater company; I was also a projectionist at a movie theater, and in a band called the Self-Righteous Brothers. I was offered a job running a meal site for the elderly. It came with health insurance so I took it. I had some wonderful older people in my life, so I was intrigued by the job. After a year or so, Judith Sharpe approached me and asked if I could get some people together for a sing-along where she would play the piano. That was how it started in 1982.

IL: How do you select the songs for the chorus? Do the chorus members ever offer their picks?

BC: There are many different ways in which songs get chosen. Often we are trying to match songs with individuals, so we listen for lyrics that will be more interesting coming from them. Yes, the chorus members make suggestions, but they aren't as familiar with more contemporary music. However, we don't only do contemporary music.

IL: What was it like to be filmed — and then to see the finished product?

BC: It was a little tricky being filmed. The chorus is used to having cameras around, so they did a good job of keeping it real. It became harder when two of the chorus members died, and we became protective of the chorus.

I liked watching the finished product. I think they did a great job editing, and for me it was fun to see the chorus members outside of rehearsals and performances.

IL: How would you describe the Young@Heart Chorus as compared to other choruses?

BC: I wouldn't know where to begin. I think what we do is unique. When you try to describe it, it sounds like a gimmick. I think we have an honest approach to the music, and we bring to it the requisite amount of energy needed for rock and roll.

IL: What are some of the challenges and rewards in directing seniors?

BC: I think they are similar to working with any group of people on a mission. The reward is working hard on something and watching it progress. The challenge is making it sound like something you want others to hear.

IL: Can you tell us more about making the music videos featured in the film?

BC: I wasn't that involved with that part of the filming. I know it was grueling for the chorus members, because there were so many takes and retakes. Unlike the rest of the film, which captures the group as they are, this is more contrived and manipulated. I like that they are there, because you rarely get to see older people in music videos.

IL: What are some of your favorite songs to perform? What are the chorus’s favorites?

BC: There are currently 30 chorus members, and you would probably get 30 different answers to that question. I tend to like the songs we are currently working on because they are stuck in my head. So right now I'm liking "Martha" by Tom Waits, "Two Weeks" by Grizzly Bear, "Get Ready" by the Temptations, and “And When I Die" by Laura Nyro/Blood Sweat & Tears.

IL: How do people hear about the chorus? Is there a waiting list?

BC: Many people have seen the film, and the group is well known locally. There are always more people than we can take on tour, so in a sense there is a waiting list, not to rehearse, but to tour.

Read about the songs performed in the film >>

Learn the history of the chorus >>

Read a statement from filmmaker Stephen Walker >>

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