It isn’t news that musical therapy can produce striking results, but rarely have those good effects been as movingly illustrated as in Alive Inside. The documentary’s best moments are scenes of deeply debilitated nursing-home residents responding dramatically to music they enjoyed in earlier days.
Provided with iPods and earphones and their choice of tunes, these elderly people, most suffering from dementia (including Alzheimer’s), seem to light up, awakening from near-catatonic states to re-connect with the world, at least temporarily. The surprise and joy in their faces testifies to the power of music as medicine.
When 94-year-old Henry, who seems to be in an advanced stage of decline, hears the music of Cab Calloway, a one-time favorite, the transformation is remarkable. Suddenly he’s capable of answering questions. His eyes glow, his body sways to the beat and he even sings along. Other patients respond in similar ways: Denise, a bipolar schizophrenic who normally uses a walker, is inspired to dance by the sounds of her beloved Schubert.
The man she presses to be her dance partner is Dan Cohen, a social worker who has devoted himself to trying to provide iPods for dementia patients, only to encounter obstacles that do not reflect well on the nursing-home industry. Cohen has a foundation, Music & Memory, that works to provide personalized music to patients who can’t afford the necessary players.
The film offers some bits of expert testimony. The famed neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks discusses the deep links between music and emotion and the strength of musical memories. A different sort of endorsement, though equally enthusiastic, comes from musician Bobby McFerrin.
The movie is at its best when documenting the reactions of various patients, which in some cases is nearly miraculous. But writer-director Michael Rossato-Bennett is on less sure grounds when he opens up the subject and starts to address broader shortcomings in the nursing-home business, and even the nation’s healthcare industry in general.
There’s a brief history of nursing homes, which grew out of the poorhouses of the 19th century, and, according to the film, are in need of humane reforms. Alive Inside glances at such problems as warehousing and overmedication. These are valid issues, but when the movie takes them up, you can feel it switching gears, and the impact diminishes.
Questions of politics and policy, even urgent ones, seem pretty dry after watching Henry and the other elderly patients come to life. Those scenes are a revelation.
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