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Proof of Life

Music awakens the spirit of the old in documentary Alive Inside

At once uplifting and infuriating, Alive Inside is a new documentary that can’t help but tell two stories at once. On the one hand, this film is about Dan Cohen, a former social worker who some three years ago began bringing iPods loaded with music into nursing homes, where “patients” with dementia were suddenly awakened by the simple act of hearing the songs that once brought them joy.

In scene after heartbreaking scene, we behold the miracle by which a withered human being, locked deep inside the loneliness of what can only be called a living death, suddenly blossoms under the influence of music, as though the spirit itself has caught a spark. As author and neurologist Oliver Sacks explains, music creates unique synaptic pathways in our brains, accessing inroads to memory, thought and feeling unlike any other sensory experience.

Cohen, founder of the nonprofit organization Music & Memory, spends most of the film in an almost bemused state as he delivers the medicine of music to one person after the next, a witness to healing, even rebirth. There is Henry, a broken and well-nigh mute 94-year-old man who, upon hearing in headphones the songs of his youth, begins singing, his eyes popping open with recognition. “It gives me a feeling of love,” Henry says in a surge of unprecedented joy and feeling.

This is the story of uplift told by Alive Inside. It’s a story in which music, perhaps the holiest of human creations, becomes the catalyst to a kind of happy neurological shock, in which the so-called aged and infirm are revealed to be neither; instead, we see that senility and decrepitude are less biological states than states of existence brought on by alienation, loneliness and neglect. One look at Denise — a woman in a nursing home who joyously pushes away the walker she’s been using the past two years just to dance — is evidence on the order of loaves and fishes: Music is the heartbeat of the soul, and it connects us to life.

That other story, then, is not so cheery. Alive Inside also reveals the insidious ways we have come to view old age as pathology, and how we as a culture have chosen — out of convenience, expediency and fear — to institutionalize our old, funneling them out of the public eye into hospitals where they shrink away for lack of any sort of meaningful engagement with life. That music carries an easy corrective to such inhumanity is a truth to which we should all listen.

Alive Inside is playing at the Bijou Metro.