Film and TV

Alive Inside Is an Engaging, Vaguely Uplifting Look at Music Therapy

If there's a problem with Michael Rossato-Bennett's Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory, an engaging, vaguely uplifting documentary about how personalized music therapy can help dementia patients, it's that it ignores the very tune it's playing. Rather than present its elderly, memory-impaired subjects as human beings who deserve more from life, they're offered up as ersatz spokespeople for the effectiveness of this already-tested technique.

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Still, it's hard not to be moved by footage of Henry, a 94-year-old man with dementia, who's awakened from his slumped-over life in a wheelchair with a Cab Calloway tune, played for him on an iPod clipped to his collar. And it's easy to be taken in by the devotion and passion of this movie's real subject, Dan Cohen, a social worker who wants to overhaul dementia treatment worldwide by playing for patients the very music they loved when they were still sentient.

The film demonstrates, repeatedly, the effectiveness of this therapeutic use of music, always bringing about a stunning change in a formerly inert patient. One woman, muttering and unsure, becomes coherent and happy when Cohen slips a pair of earphones over her head and plays a Beach Boys song for her. An old man who hasn't interacted with others in two years comes alive, singing along and dancing to an Andrews Sisters tune he recalls from his former life.

Music therapy as a stimulant for the demented is nothing new; it's been used in nursing homes for years. Cohen's refined the technique with headphones and an iPod filled with specially selected, personalized music. But there's so little background on Cohen and the evolution of music therapy, and so much repetition in its effects on demented people, that the movie often feels less like an enlightening look into a crisis (more than 50 million people are suffering from various dementias; that number will nearly double in the next 10 years) and more like a shill for Cohen's nonprofit program, Music and Memory, which has thus far introduced this therapy into more than 500 nursing homes in the US.

The narrator mimics the same sing-song tones used by Michael Moore, which unfortunately makes one wonder what this film might have been like had it been made by a filmmaker with a stronger point of view.

Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory is now playing at Harkins Camelview 5, 7001 East Highland Avenue in Scottsdale. Call 480-947-8778 or visit

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela