Everything you always suspected about music is true. Scientists can point to the parts of the brain that music stimulates, where our deepest memories and feelings reside. The phenomenon even stretches back to before birth, when the sound of a heartbeat establishes our sensory proclivity toward music. This scientific material is offered in Alive Inside to buttress the rather remarkable anecdotal evidence we see for ourselves onscreen, as the power of music is used to revive the personalities of people with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Filmmaker Michael Rossato-Bennett tags along with Dan Cohen, a music-therapy proselytizer (and founder of the nonprofit Music & Memory), as Cohen travels to facilities for people living with dementia.
Cohen’s method is frequently repeated here, but never wears out its welcome. He approaches people whose memory loss has put them in a dulled or lethargic state and invites them to listen to music from an iPod shuffle. When a song begins, the change is almost immediate: Eyes light up, limbs begin twisting, and stories pour out. If it isn’t a definitive argument in favor of using music as a therapeutic tool, it’s certainly dramatic. The film then goes on to lobby in favor of getting such therapies into hospitals and retirement communities, painting a dire portrait of a pharmaceutical-industrial complex that delights in ringing up thousands of dollars of drugs for patients every month but balks at a $40 iPod. Serious establishment voices are not much heard here, but then this isn’t really a documentary—it’s a work of activism, and a beautiful one. If Alive Inside helps change the culture of treatment for the cognitively impaired, that would be a very good thing.
It becomes more than activism, too. Seeing the joyful transformation that erupts when an Alzheimer’s patient hears the Beach Boys’ “I Get Around” suggests we might need to re-evaluate the generally accepted hierarchy of Important Things in Life. Material success and adult accomplishments are all well and good, but maybe we should pay attention to the part of our brain that values four-part harmonies, silly lyrics, and a danceable beat. If this movie’s evidence is to be taken seriously, those allegedly frivolous things are what remain at the human core even after the rest is lost. Opens Fri., Aug. 22 at Varsity: moves to SIFF Cinema Uptown Fri., Aug. 29. Not rated. 75 minutes.