Sunday, Sept. 28, The Milwaukee Film Festival screened “Alive Inside,” a documentary about the benefits of music for people with memory problems, and social worker Dan Cohen’s struggle to incorporate music therapy into nursing homes. The great thing about this film is, despite its potentially depressing topic matter, it blends education and hope in a way that one doesn’t often find in documentaries.
“Alive Inside” provides a well-rounded, informed look at the benefits of music therapy first in how people are inherently drawn to music. Insight from doctors, psychologists, and even Grammy Award-winning vocalist/composer Bobby McFerrin help explain how humans are set apart with an aptitude for music and rhythm that began when we synched heartbeats with our mothers in utero. From there the audience sees the positive effects of music in practice.
The film primarily looks at how music helps elderly nursing home residents with Alzheimer’s or dementia, but it also looks at younger people suffering from mental illness or multiple sclerosis. For these people, music works as an escape from their current struggles and afflictions. A man with multiple sclerosis can travel back in time through music and dance again in his memories. A bipolar schizophrenic woman can take a vacation from her fears and find joy in a familiar song.
The real focus of the film, though, is how people with Alzheimer’s or dementia are able to remember their past when they hear familiar songs. A combination of animation, archive footage, interviews, and graphics helps the audience to get drawn into the subjects’ lives. Getting a peek into the lives of Alzheimer’s and dementia patients’ pasts not only emphasizes the importance of music therapy, but reiterates the importance of this particular community and that they still have lives to live and much to contribute to future generations.
While the filmmakers make a point of not criticizing nursing home caregivers, they raise the issue of residents as “patients” before they’re thought of as individual people. They also raise awareness about the current state of nursing homes more as hospital settings than a home environment. Most importantly to Cohen’s struggle, “Alive Inside” points out the ease in obtaining thousands of dollars worth in pharmaceuticals to a nursing home, while a tiny portion of the cost for music therapy is rejected because it is not yet considered a legitimate form of therapy.
These downfalls in nursing home care and roadblocks in Cohen’s attempt to establish personalized music in nursing homes may give the impression that “Alive Inside” is a depressing documentary, but it’s exactly the opposite. Watching elderly men and women with Alzheimers or dementia might even seem too saddening to watch for some people, but rest assured that the film only draws tears of joy.
“Alive Inside” is an uplifting film that presents a very reachable goal in progress, while subtly showing youth how they can get involved in bridging the gap between them and the elderly via music. The audience literally watches as dormant nursing home residents spring to life, singing and dancing and telling stories from their youth, while listening to their favorite songs. This groundbreaking film challenges how we view aging, Alzheimer’s, dementia, mental illness, and music.
“Alive Inside” runs at The Milwaukee Film Festival again on Oct. 4 at 12:30 p.m. at Downer Theater. Tickets are available online or at the Milwaukee Film Box Office.