No film I’ve seen better underlines the transcendental power and mysticism that music has over human emotions than Alive Inside, filmmaker Michael Rossato-Bennett’s devoutly moving and often quite beautiful-looking documentary spotlighting a one-man crusade called Music & Memory. Begun by social worker Dan Cohen, the movement herds music into nursing homes, back into the lives of elderly patients of dementia and Alzheimer’s, and uses it as a profoundly effective therapy tool.
Cohen, who spends much of the film’s crisp running time onscreen, proves his case immediately. In the opening moments, Cohen asks a woman with dementia questions about her life she struggles to answer before stretching a pair of headphones over her ears and pressing play on a small iPod, filling her head with music from her past. She sparks to life instantly, smiling so big that her eyes disappear, and suddenly she can’t keep up with her memories as they come flooding out of her mouth in such succession that she laughs and admits she never knew she could talk so much.
There are moments like this throughout Alive Inside, as more patients are invited to partake in the casual treatment. The emotional impact of watching these people who previously appear to be shells of their former selves suddenly inflate with such vigor and childlike glee is one that never dulls. It’s like watching a parlor trick, or footage of religious disciples magically healed by the power of God. But there’s nothing supernatural happening; it’s the simple universality of music, of songs we know and have heard hundreds of times before, that reawakens and recharges individuals who spend most of their last days slowly wasting away with depleted spirits.
Bennett wisely balances this sentimental tilt with scientific exposition about the hows and whys of the brain’s unique response to music, as well as presenting an indictment of the U.S. health care system and lamenting the institutionalization of nursing homes. These portions are handled nobly and without abrasive bias, with the aid of a few particularly articulate talking heads, including neuroscientist Oliver Sacks, musician Bobby McFerrin, and an Alzheimer’s specialist who admits that all of the pharmacological treatment he’s implemented in 40 years hasn’t worked nearly as well as this simple gesture.
Alive Inside is a genuine rally, a deafening plea to turn our eyes back onto these elders who are filed away into sterile buildings and widely forgotten (and who, the documentary demonstrates, are growing exponentially), but needn’t be. One of my early questions as Alive Inside unspooled was whether music, this behemoth healer, could be used to prevent such severe brain diseases in addition to treating the symptoms of full-blown cases. It seems unlikely that it could – like a fantasy borne out of a loved one’s desperate hope – but the doc’s answer to that question is one of many unbelievable and miraculous moments in Bennett’s film.