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The documentary Alive Inside looks at how patients suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s react when they are played music from their childhood.
The documentary Alive Inside looks at how patients suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s react when they are played music from their childhood.

Cultural nostalgia is a human experience Add to ...

The most moving scene I’ve seen in a film this year occurs in a documentary called Alive Inside, when a 94-year-old African-American man named Henry hears, for the first time in decades, the gospel music of his childhood. Before an iPod is fixed to his ears, Henry is shown sitting in his nursing-home wheelchair, his hands covering his head. He doesn’t look up or speak. But when the music plays, Henry lights up like a Christmas tree, and he sings. The music has brought him back to life.

The film is the story of former teacher Dan Cohen’s campaign to deliver personalized music to people suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Michael Rosatto-Bennett’s movie indulges in a little science to confirm what most of us probably intuitively know: The music that moved us in our youth stays with us for a lifetime. It imprints itself on our brains when our personalities are still forming. It mingles with our memory functions and defines our sense of pleasure. It restores a sense of wholeness to even the most fractured souls.

But its effect may also account for something else – the fact that people tend to love throughout their lives the music (and movies and books and television) they loved as kids and teenagers. That’s another way of saying there might be a neurological reason baby boomers can be so boring when they insist their music was so much better than anything that came before or after. They can’t help it.

I had something of a Henry moment with Gord Lewis, whom I was interviewing for a book about a band he formed in Hamilton, Ont., nearly 40 years ago called Teenage Head. I asked him about the inspiration for one song, Picture My Face; I first heard it when I was 20 and became an instant, lifelong Teenage Head fan. I couldn’t hear it enough, and it pulled me to the band’s live shows as often as I could see them.

When Lewis told me it was inspired by a Monkees tune called A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You, I nearly fell out of my chair. I got that record when I was about 10, and played it so often my father threatened to throw my record player out the window if I didn’t play something else. But I couldn’t help it: That song gave me such intense pleasure it was crack for my ears. So when I heard it reworked as an amped-up, bubblegum-pop, punk-rock Teenage Head tune, I was a goner. The child I had been was reactivated with a direct sonic jolt to the subliminal pleasure receptors.

The question of where taste comes from has been a mystery for as long as we’ve thought about such things. But now we’re learning that it probably comes from the process whereby the brain formulates identity through the sensation of pleasure. No wonder that pop culture has such a powerful influence on generational identity: The things we fell so hard for as kids and teenagers – the word “crush” resonates here – reverberate throughout our lives, and the depth of that identification means we are drawn to others who share that formative intensity. In the age of mass entertainment, generational affiliation is based, more than anything, on what we saw and heard before we even knew who we were.

When a poster started appearing for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, featuring a chimp on horseback defiantly hoisting a rifle over his head, any rational resistance I might have had for the movie – based on age, decades of professional movie-going and the reasonable presumption that all sequels, remakes and digital remasterings of the pop past should be approached cautiously – melted away.

Why? Because the image awoke my inner 10-year-old – the kid who saw the original Planet of the Apes at exactly the right moment in time to be convinced that an armed gorilla on horseback was the hands-down, world-ending, coolest thing ever, and who carried that seared image in his cerebral cortex ever since.

As we mature, we learn to rationalize our pop cultural passions. We make intellectual arguments for the legitimacy of our tastes, we defend our positions as objectively unassailable, we resist the experiences of other generations as somehow less worthy or enlightened than our own. But what it boils down to is this: We just can’t help it. For you it might be Star Wars or Kiss or The X-Files or The Brady Bunch. For me it was the peculiar convergence of two mid-1960s anthropomorphized simian variants, apes and Monkees. But for everyone, it is what it was for Henry: a key to the door of the child within.

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