Film Review: Alive Inside

Incredibly moving and powerful documentary about combatting Alzheimer's with music. Without the use of a single CGI effect, you see literal miracles happening here.

Music's power to heal is indubitably proved by Michael Rossato-Bennett's quite amazing documentary, Alive Inside. He focuses on Dan Cohen, a social worker who travels to senior-care facilities across the country, interacting with various serious cases of adult dementia. Seemingly barely alive, heads bowed, eyes closed, completely withdrawn and unresponsive, they are near human vegetables, but to them Cohen brings the gift of the iPod, in which he has collected favorite songs from their past. Within seconds of having the earphones placed on their heads, these patients come instantly to life, eyes sparkling with recognition, shoulders twitching and legs keeping time to the rhythm. What you are witnessing is indeed a miracle, the kind of stuff faith healers used to try to promote—but in these cases, it's all utterly real.

Running parallel with these wondrous revelations, however, is the darker truth about the treatment of the elderly in this country of 300 million, with the number of facilities provided for them totaling less than 20,000. There are some five million cases of adult dementia in this country, requiring twice that number to care for them. Those "lucky" enough to receive such care find themselves relegated to cold, hospital-like institutions they only yearn to escape from, forgotten by family and friends, and fed a regimen of questionable drugs which may regulate their blood pressure and mood swings, but, as the film states, do nothing for their hearts and souls.

The frustrating thing is, even though the efficacy of Cohen's musical method is demonstrated over and over, and supported by the likes of Oliver Sacks (who appears in the film), just getting the necessary inexpensive technology to those most in need of it is a problem in the face of current healthcare policies. However, Cohen is spearheading a growing movement born from the viral Internet presence begun with his footage of a 94-year-old black man who is a prime example of being literally resurrected when he hears gospel music. I can personally attest to this phenomenon by recounting the experience of my late father, who suffered from Alzheimer's for years and could barely speak or recognize anyone but came blazingly alive with a trumpet which he could still play flawlessly.

This doc is just a wonderful thing, especially for the hope it offers both the victims of an ever-burgeoning disease, as well as their hard-pressed loved ones. Warning: It's a genuinely honest tearjerker, but you will definitely fall in love with its stars. They include a bald, wizened, half-alive codger who is suddenly able to recall his glory days as a strappingly handsome young soldier and then entertainer, blasting the rec room with an impassioned "Some Enchanted Evening," as his fellow residents marvel. There's a woman who is heartbreakingly aware of the burden she places upon her devoted husband who has decided to keep her home to care for her. She is inexpressibly sad until hearing The Beach Boys' "I Get Around" has her literally jumping for joy. And then there's Denise, a Hispanic, severely diagnosed bipolar case with terrifying mood swings, who is becalmed by Schubert's "Ave Maria" and becomes a sizzling hot mama when listening to salsa and trying to dance with Cohen. "You're not Spanish," she hilariously tells this rhythm-challenged but superbly committed, truly life-changing savior of a social worker.

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