With a vacant, expressionless look in his eyes and his head wilted to one side, Henry feels the headphones as they are gently positioned on his head. As the 1930s swing jazz music plays, a sudden energy awakens inside him. or this moment it is as though he is without Alzheimer’s and back in his 20s again.
Netflix’s Alive Inside is a joyous cinematic exploration of music’s capacity to reawaken our souls and uncover the deepest parts of our humanity. Filmmaker Michael Rossato-Bennett chronicles the astonishing experiences of individuals around the country who have been revitalised through the simple experience of listening to music. His camera reveals the uniquely human connection we find in music and how its healing power can triumph where prescription medication falls short.
This feature showcases powerful examples of music at work in combatting the ravages of dementia and Alzheimer’s. It turns out that songs are embedded deep in our memories, and Alzheimer patients’ minds can be resuscitated by their favourite music or songs.
Rossato-Bennett follows social worker Dan Cohen, who discovered that a patient’s favourite songs are intact in a part of the brain that is still alive when all other communication and awareness seem irretrievably lost.
However, the documentary focuses on a fact slightly less compelling. With a sharp cinematic scalpel, we see that the “nursing-home industry” evolved from poor-house roots and merged with today’s concept of sparing families the wear of elder care. The “humane” result; Alzheimer patients are basically warehoused, soused with meds and propped away in their rooms.
In short, “medical” care does not touch the heart and souls of the patients. It merely subdues them. Recognising that sad and deplorable fact, social worker Cohen tried a different approach: He provided Dementia sufferers with iPods containing their favourite tunes.
Invariably, the music they love brings them to life
As the sounds burst out, from Schubert to the Shirelles, their blank faces and somber visages erupt into joy. They swing and sway, recalling the magical memories they associate with their favorite songs.
The turnaround is near miraculous. In these moments of joy and ecstasy the senior’s beautiful and authentic self, which has been shrouded by dementia, shines through. They are no longer just nursing home patients, but unique and interesting people experiencing the moment in its fullest. As the film progresses, we meet many more individuals in nursing homes who have retreated into themselves with no sign of returning to the here and now. Their capacity to communicate or comprehend is in doubt. Invariably, the music they love brings them to life.
Equally affecting is the portrayal of the passionate believers in the power of music who have pushed the cause of getting music to dementia patients. For instance, musician Samite Mulondo, an immigrant to the U.S. from Uganda is featured prominently in the film generously giving his time to the older residents, playing and singing music that moves the elderly residents despite the fact it is traditional African music rather than an American jazz or pop standards. In one especially touching moment of the film, Mulondo spends time playing music for a woman who has just learned that she is dying. The tranquil music he plays for her is just as calming as his peaceful and centered demeanor. She even takes off a necklace she is wearing and gives it to him as a gesture of thanks, and it’s clear his visit has brought her great peace.
Introducing the effect music has is a revelation for nurses at the care homes and for the patients themselves, reminding us that music really does speak to the soul.