Moving documentary about one man’s journey to help enrich the lives of dementia sufferers with music
As society ages, good nursing care for the elderly becomes vitally important. Alive Inside chronicles one man’s attempt to bring the healing power of music to those suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, in nursing homes across the country. The genuinely touching documentary by Michael Rossato-Bennett has its heart in the right place, covering Dan Cohen’s nearly singular efforts to awaken the deepest recesses of patients’ minds with their favorite music. It is a joyous, uplifting look into Cohen’s efforts with Music and Memory, his nonprofit foundation dedicated to that goal.
Millions suffer from dementia in the United States, many of them elderly and living in nursing homes. Their brain function having decayed with time, they often suffer frustrated and alone in a world they find confusing. Unable to recognize friends and family, they are trapped in their own thoughts. The conventional medical treatment is to treat these seniors with anti-depressants and other drugs, often with poor results. Dan Cohen takes a simple iPod and fills it with a senior’s favorite music, often music from their youth. This is not a standard treatment and there is no funding for it by the government or other sources. Most nursing homes do not have the budget to gift their residents with iPods or other music devices.
The neural pathways for music memory are not as affected by dementia and other ravages of aging as other mental abilities. It’s amazing to see unresponsive patients with Alzheimer’s disease light up when given the chance to hear their favorite music, from Louis Armstrong to the Beach Boys. People suffering from dementia that are hardly communicative will sometimes start dancing, or even crying, when presented the music they once loved. Alive Inside firmly encapsulates how music can bring out the remaining humanity in these patients, touching something deep in their souls. I can guarantee it will bring a smile to your face when you see these magical moments.
While the focus of Alive Inside is a series of visits with social worker Dan Cohen helping residents at nursing homes, a number of talking head interviews from the medical community weigh in on the matter. Singer Bobby McFerrin makes a brief appearance, talking about humanity’s fundamental connection to music. This is a breezily edited documentary that doesn’t drag out its subject, touching on a number of patients’ histories in a candid but quick style. There is some backwash about the occasionally inhumane nature of nursing homes for these kind of patients, though the documentary takes a well-balanced approach in showing the difficulties of managing people in this stage of life.
Everyone knows that music can touch a person’s soul, tapping primal emotions in us all. Apparently that extends to those suffering from deep dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, giving them a small piece of their humanity back for the cost of an iPod. It’s a worthy cause documented by Alive Inside and truly touching at times. This is probably not a film one seeks out on their own, but hopefully it gets wider exposure through some venue like cable television.
Alive Inside has been released on Blu-ray thanks to independent distributor City Drive Films. The 77-minute main feature is presented in 1080P video, framed at the standard 1.78:1 widescreen aspect ratio. For a documentary that I imagine did not have a big budget, the picture quality is quite respectable. The interviews with patients have decent clarity and show typical digital traits. It adheres to a consistently solid presentation marked by sharpness and clarity.
Is this awe-inspiring video from a demo stand point? There is a moderate amount of archival footage from lower resolutions and a handful of older still photographs. The modern video segments have solid contrast, unassuming detail, and a lively color palette given the constraints. City Drive uses a professional AVC video encode on a BD-25 that does not introduce artifacts. Aside from possible color and contrast tweaks, I do not see evidence of other video processing. This material’s picture quality certainly deserved a Blu-ray release and it shows up here in fine fashion.
Director Michael Rossato-Bennett did not set out to shoot a documentary intending to win cinematography awards. This is standard documentary fare with very acceptable visuals.
Music is essential to Dan Cohen’s efforts with the elderly suffering from dementia. The included 5.1 DTS-HD MA soundtrack is an excellent showcase for his program, using a handful of well-known tunes such as the Beach Boys to highlight music’s importance to these patients’ lives. This is a finely-tuned mix, incorporating a wonderful score by composer Itaal Shur across the front soundstage in perfect fidelity. His light classical score employs a number of varied instruments, explained in the extensive supplemental feature on it. I thought it was one of the better scores I’ve heard in any film this year.
Dialogue is precisely placed, balanced in an intelligible manner with the songs and score. It was a pleasure to hear in the lossless soundtrack, though one shouldn’t expect a wildly expansive surround mix. The surround track adds a light amount of ambient filler, mostly incorporating the score. A stereo 2.0 PCM mix is included that mostly replicates the surround track. The fidelity for the two mixes are identical and does not lose much impact in the move to two channels. No subtitles have been provided for the main feature.
Alive Inside gets a loaded assortment of special features, including a very unique supplement featuring text comments about the score from composer Itaal Shur. I’m not sure how this batch could have been improved, this a complete slate of material that greatly supports the primary documentary. The director’s commentary could have been more lively and included Dan Cohen.
Deleted Scenes (35:29 in HD) – A number of scenes excised from the main documentary that helps round out its points. Some of this may have been cut for duplicating too much similar material, but it’s still welcome to see as a bonus. It includes a couple of cases that were entirely cut from Alive Inside.
Ask Dan Cohen (13:36 in HD) – Cohen answers some of the questions he frequently gets asked about his mission. These are straightforward answers that help empower individuals seeking help in this area.
Director Michael Rossatto-Bennett Interview (19:00 in HD) – The director goes over why he ended up making Alive Inside and his journey in doing so.
Alive Inside Soundtrack (30:43 in HD; 2.0 PCM) – A great special feature with a style I wish became popular across Blu-ray releases. As his instrumental pieces from the score play, composer Itaal Shur gives textual commentary on each work. It is a great idea and one that works at delivering excellent insight into his process on each song.
Trailer (02:16 in HD)
Audio Commentary – Director Michael Rossatto-Bennett gives a reserved solo commentary filled with too much silence. He does contribute better contextual understanding of his documentary and the experience of following Dan Cohen’s work for three years.
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Click on the images below for full resolution screen captures taken directly from the Blu-ray. Images have not been altered in any way during the process.