Audiences first encounter Henry hunched over in his wheelchair, head down, hands clasped firmly together, unresponsive to the world around him.
As soon as a pair of headphones are placed on his head, the 94-year-old dementia patient opens his eyes, sits up straight and begins swaying and humming along with the music. Henry speaks animatedly about his favorite band leader, Cab Calloway, and even begins to emulate the jazz artist’s style of scat singing — at one point launching into a rendition of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”
The dramatic transformation, which takes place against the bleak institutional setting of the nursing home where Henry has spent the last decade of his life, is a powerful set piece for the documentary film “Alive Inside,” which opens this weekend in New York.
“Alive Inside” follows social worker Dan Cohen, whose nonprofit Music & Memory organization works to bring iPods loaded with personalized playlists to elderly Alzheimer’s and dementia patients. So far, Cohen’s program has expanded from three nursing homes to 489 in 42 states — with the help of private donations spurred by the film.
Filmmaker Michael Rossato-Bennett said he was hired to create a video for Cohen’s website. The scope of the project changed as he witnessed Henry’s transformation when the music of his youth was returned to him.
“I had goosebumps over my whole body when he was waking up. I had tears in my eyes,” said Rossato-Bennett. “They say every artist only tells one story over and over again. If I had to tell my story, it’s the finding of life where you think there is none.”
“Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory” is winning acclaim on the festival circuit, collecting the prestigious audience award for documentary film at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival and best documentary at the Milan International Film Festival.
Apple is lending the film a promotional nudge, as it opens to limited release in theaters throughout the U.S.
The documentary uses Henry’s story, and those of other patients, to illustrate music’s power to reach parts of the brain that remain intact, even late in the onset of Alzheimer’s, and evoke memories.
“Music therapists know all this. They practice it,” Cohen said. “But there are very few music therapists in the world of the elderly. It’s knowledge that was siloed.”
Cohen, who has spent a career working in technology, viewed the problem as one of technical limitations, and he set out to solve it, one iPod and custom playlist at a time. His goal is an ambitious one: To bring personalized music to 16,000 long-term care facilities in the U.S.
“It’s not a cure for Alzheimer’s, but it does work most of the time,” Cohen said. “And there is no downside. The worst case scenario — you don’t get a benefit. Sometimes, it’s a dramatic change in someone’s life.”
Here’s the trailer for the film: