Therapist Blog

Music and Aging

“Quartet,” a new film directed by Dustin Hoffmann, has opened to favorable but mixed reviews. The story takes place in England at Beecham House, a home for retired musicians, and centers on preparations for the annual benefit concert, presented by the residents. Some reviewers have complained about the resemblance of the plot to the old Andy Hardy, “let’s put on a show,” movies. Others have found unconvincing the sudden reconciliation between two characters who had once been briefly married. I take issue with the reviewers who find the entire depiction of the aged musicians to be sentimental and unrealistic. According to them, it would seem, a realistic presentation would have half the residents lolling semi-sentient with their chins on their chests.

“Every scene insists that real physical or mental infirmity belongs in some other picture.” [Entertainment Weekly, Lisa Schwarzbaum]“The film is far from honest about aging. Everyone seems in near-peak form — with Sissy’s little mental breakdowns more endearing than scary — and they look quite dapper with their canes and gray hair. Apparently retirement means continuous vigor until the day when an angel sweeps you away. [Kyle Smith, New York Post]This is a retirement home where no one seems to be plagued by failing bodies, Alzheimer’s and other diseases of the aging. Everyone is in fine fettle and the players are all spry and funny. [Reeling Review, Robin Clifford]

I believe these reviewers fail to appreciate the beneficial effects of being actively engaged with colleagues pursuing one’s craft to the limits of one’s abilities, particularly if that craft is music. Consider two documentaries on aging musicians. “Young@Heart” [2007] portrays a choir of oldsters (average age 81) in Northampton, Massachusetts, challenged to a high level of performance by their director Bob Cilman. Death and infirmity always lurk offstage but the discipline and commitment of the participants contribute to keeping them at bay. “The Buena Vista Social Club” [1999] chronicles Ry Cooder’s campaign to locate and reunite aging Cuban musicians and prepare them for performances at Carnegie Hall and the Netherlands. These musicians would not have been capable of maintaining the pace of their former professional careers, but could marshal their forces for the occasional one-off gig.

Our North American perspective tends to look upon retirement as an occasion to hustle seniors off the stage of life and sequester them in some kind of holding facility until they finally disappear. “Quartet” offers a more benign, and I would say realistic, view. “Quartet reminds viewers that while life may become more difficult, it doesn’t have to end until the final curtain drops.” [Parent Previews, Donna Gustafson]