We are suspended in existential terror of aging and being cast out of sociocultural feedback loops; however, our pathological obsession with data and documentation allows us to build a continuous architecture of sound and image. Michael Rossato-Bennett’s Alive Inside speaks to the generation of those living with varying degrees of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia who do not have a referential archive of space and place, and introduces music therapy as platform for reawakening.
The documentary surrounds the efforts of Dan Cohen, a social worker who posits that on a neurological level, music is capable of plundering various associations which reconstruct previously dormant sensory emotions. Through his foundation Music & Memory, he disseminates iPods (formatted with playlists tailored to each individual) and headphones throughout nursing homes in the US.
Rossato-Bennett’s subjects all exist in states of alienation, increasingly bereft of their emotional identities. Many of these residents lack any emotional support system and have been rendered incapable of communication to at least some extent. The harrowing quandary of “what happened and what didn’t?” underlies the quotidian bleakness and catatonia of the documentary’s nursing home mise-en-scène.
The medium of music here intends not so much to induce nostalgia as it does to reclaim aura. The individual experience of each resident and their response to the music given to them are intensely affective and in fact, quite capable of provoking emotional response from the viewer mirroring the subject. Each of the film’s accounts involves a catharsis through listening, registering, processing and reacting; unfortunately Rossato-Bennett adds to his subjects’ experiences his own superfluous and distracting narration, a recurring pattern throughout the film. We witness relationships including Harry and Cab Calloway (a YouTube viral sensation), Mary Lou and “I Get Around,” and Denise, diagnosed with bipolar schizophrenia and concerned about the mortal footprint she will leave behind (as well as pleasant and unremarkable appearances by musician Bobby McFerrin and neurologist Oliver Sacks).
Alive Inside takes a problematic turn when the interpersonal becomes a vehicle for the topical, and the documentary teeters back and forth between moments of poignant catharsis and institutional critique. A brief found footage history of urbanization and the nursing home is completely incongruous (stylistically and thematically) to the fervor and bombast depicted on the faces of the residents. To the film’s further detriment is its polarized stand-off between drugs and music therapy. While the merits of arts-oriented therapy are certainly to be advocated for, it is risky and ill-informed to create a general opposition between pharmaceutical drugs and alternative treatments.
At the crux of the film is Dan Cohen and his pursuit for collective well-being and self worth; however, we are left with scant perspective as to his own history that propels his motivation. Alive Inside is muddled in its struggle to mitigate its own ambition and emotion and as a result, it obscures its moments of radiance and poignancy. Rossato-Bennett’s tendency to overpopulate declares itself on multiple levels, rhetorically and visually. However, the documentary manages to conclude with a salient commentary about the stigmatization of aging, and our dismissal of the elderly (who in actuality, have gleaned a personal magic greater than ours through their expanse of life experience), and the appeal to humanity remains intact.