"I've forgotten so much," says an elderly female patient in the early moments of Alive Inside . Social-worker-turned-activist Dan Cohen, the documentary's primary subject, has heard these words before. Seconds later, a pair of headphones linked to an iPod changes everything; the woman listens to music from her childhood, seemingly turning on a switch, conjuring up memories long obscured by the effects of dementia. For a short moment, remembering becomes a reality again.
Director Michael Rossato-Bennett followed Cohen for three years, filming his efforts to bring this kind of music therapy into the mainstream of the American healthcare system. The results of his methodology are staggering, and the film front-loads its content with a series of individual cases that prove how powerful music can be for seniors who've been sequestered in nursing homes for decades. The most harrowing example involves a man named Henry, who's unable to show any sort of expression or vibrancy. When Cohen presses play on a classic gospel track, Henry's eyes light up as if he were possessed, giving him cause to sing for the first time in years.
Alive Inside acts like a cross between verité and personal essay, both fly-on-the-wall exposé and lyrical proclamation. This stylistic hybridization doesn't always work; throughout the film, Rossato-Bennett inserts his own poetic voice-over narration that often distracts from the natural power of Cohen's efforts, which involve finding the necessary funding to provide his services to all of America's senior facilities. Instead of letting his subject's actions stand on their own merit, the filmmaker feels the need to insert flowery language where none is needed.
Yet, Rossato-Bennett smartly weaves together multiple talking-head interviews that act as a frank counter-balance to his own emotional expression. Dr. William Thomas, a renowned gerontologist working in the field for more than three decades, provides a striking critique of our government and society's treatment of seniors, asking, "Does elderhood have a place in modern America?" The question gets at the heart of Cohen's overall mission to resuscitate the souls of older people lost in a healthcare system that doesn't provide them with substantial dignity.
One of the more joyous moments in the film comes when Samite Mulondo, director of Musicians for World Harmony, visits a bipolar patient named Denise with the filmmakers watching close by. Their interactions debunk the fear and negativity usually associated with such a difficult diagnosis. As Mulondo's hypnotic voice fills the space, singing a Ugandan tribal song, Denise touches him softly on the head, enamored with the man's graceful presence.
Alive Inside —which opens at the Ken Cinema on Friday, Aug. 8, and runs through Aug. 14—collects such profound examples of humanity and asks the viewer to remember them long after the credits roll. Fittingly, the film concludes with Henry's rejuvenation going viral on YouTube, inspiring millions of people to use Cohen's method with their own hospitalized relatives. Whether or not this is merely a stopgap to the erosion of identity or a treatment that might have long-term positive impact on the fight against degenerative disease remains ambiguous. Still, it's undeniable that the music itself has magical qualities for those usually defined by their maladies.
While his procedures and goals are showcased throughout, Cohen himself remains a quiet enigma. This speaks to his selfless attitude and continuous desire to place the patient at the center of the film. Alive Inside is less a portrait of Cohen and more a revitalization of what it means to care deeply about an older generation pushed to the fringes of society.
"Aging is not a machine-like endeavor. We are made to age," Thomas says. Alive Inside confirms that growing old doesn't have to be inhumane. In fact, it can be quite melodic.