In the Spotlight: Alive Inside and the power of music

In just over a decade, The Calgary Underground Film Festival (CUFF) has established itself as a fan-favourite festival that provides its loyal audience with diverse programming. From the all-you-can-eat-cereal buffet at the Saturday morning cartoon event, to shorts from around the world, to gripping dramas and quirky pieces that spur lots of conversation over the custom Big Rock brew they serve in the theatre (yes—they have their own beer!) it’s an event that I look forward to each year.

This year, the National Music Centre partnered with CUFF to present the moving documentary, Alive Inside: A Story of Music & Memory. The team behind the movie is Dan Cohen, Executive Director of Music & Memory, Inc., and filmmaker Michael Rossato-Bennett. It was Cohen’s own love of music and his experience working with technology that led him to create Music & Memory, a non-profit that brings personalized music into the lives of the elderly or infirm through digital music technology, vastly improving quality of life.

You can learn about their beginnings here:

Cohen learns about the patient from caregivers or family and creates an individual playlist from his wealth of songs from different eras, genres and feelings. Whether upbeat big band songs, or soulful spirituals, the music is distinct to each patient, sometimes with trial and error to see what sounds “unlock” the patient’s brain.

Rossato-Bennett was a videographer that Cohen had asked to join him for a day for a visit to one of the nursing homes that he volunteered at and see the impact of the program first-hand.

For Rossato-Bennett this single day of following Cohen around turned into three years of documenting his work and meeting hundreds of patients from different backgrounds and ailments.

The patient that begins this cinematic journey for Rossato-Bennett and also for the audience is Henry. Henry suffers from dementia and barely speaks, but when the songs of his youth flow through his earphones he opens his eyes, bops to the music, answers questions, and seems aware and engaged. It’s dramatic and the moment was first posted to YouTube in 2011, garnering over one million views and helping to bring the full-length documentary to fruition.

Henry reacting to music from his era. Rough cut excerpt from Alive Inside.

More of these emotional and powerful scenes play out as patients transform through the headphones, much to the grateful and overwhelming emotion of their loved ones and caregivers.

Sniffles certainly echoed through the theatre, but there was also laughter at the wide-eyed enthusiastic reaction of some patients, along with audible indignation.

The impact and value of this simple act seems so obvious—a set of earphones and a small iPod are instruments that free the emotions and minds of our most vulnerable. But Cohen was going up against a system that favoured medication over music therapy and he was aghast to find out that Apple considered themselves a company that did not participate in philanthropy.

Part of me wanted a Michael Moore style skewering of the organizations that would deny their patients this valuable treatment and a public shaming of iPod for not committing to the cause. But that’s not where this movie goes, much to its credit.

Cohen maintains his course, and through the movie you see slow change as certain states embrace the project and donations enable more iPods to be distributed.

There are many powerful moments in Alive Inside; a music therapy session for female Congolese survivors that suffer from post traumatic stress, and the use of Cohen’s methods to stave off the progression of Alzheimer’s in patients like Marylou. Experts like neurologist Oliver Sacks and musician Bobby McFerring extoll the merits of the project as well.

This is a movie about the power of music, but it also explores the darkness of the pharmaceutical industry that overprescribes anti-psychotic medication to the elderly to make them easier to care for. It also criticizes the massive nursing home industry that seems ill-prepared for baby boomers, not to mention that it is those baby boomers that are saying “I don’t want to live that way.” Radical reform is needed and the audience is left with the feeling that there is a torch to carry, a project that they must take ownership.

I’ve seen firsthand the devastation of a mind locked in the ugliness of Alzheimer’s. Like all crippling diseases, it affects not just the patient, but also the friends and family that are powerless to stave off the relentless erasure of their loved one’s mind.

To me the movie shows the power of music to heal and bring peace. Although the effects of the music coming through the headphones seems momentary, you can feel everyone in the room relax, as is a rope has been slackened and the patient and their family can breathe. For a disease as horrific as Alzheimer’s, sometimes a brief moment of relief can feel like a lifetime.
Mary Kapusta

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