On a purely surface level, Alive Inside presents a compelling argument for the benefits of music therapy for individuals in elder-care facilities who are suffering with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. The documentary charts three years in the life of Dan Cohen, Executive Director of Music & Memory, a non-profit that “brings personalized music into the lives of the elderly or infirm through digital music technology.” So if it were nothing else, Alive Inside would be a wonderful film.
But beneath that surface is something more. This independent film offers up an extended reflection on the relationship between music and the “livingness of life”—that impossible-to-describe yet unmistakable experience of being simply, wholly, and wonderfully human, even if only for a moment. Alive Inside tells a strangely familiar story in which music breathes life into the minds, hearts, and souls of those who have retreated into the dark abyss of their inner-psyche.
Early on in the film, we meet Henry, a man who is described by his therapist and physician as being so lost in his dementia that he requires assistance with every aspect of his daily life. He is isolated, turned inward, and largely incoherent. While watching this disintegrated, disconnected, and disoriented shell of a man, we are left with little doubt that, while it is one thing to exist, it is something altogether different to be truly alive.
Yet the beauty of Alive Inside is that it doesn’t leave us in this fractured space of mere existence. Rather, it allows viewers to witness the very moment when Henry “wakes up,” when music reignites a long-dormant ember in the depths of his person. As he hears the first few bars of “Goin’ up Yonder” or sings the opening verse of his favorite song (“I’ll be Home for Christmas”), Henry is suddenly awake, aware, and coherent. He remembers. He reflects. He smiles, laughs, and cries. He is there—truly there. And somehow, through this music, we are right there with him.
It is thus no small wonder that video footage of Henry’s experience went viral when it was first posted on reddit.com. There is something that resonates within each of us when the depths of another human being are laid bare. As filmmaker Michael Rossato-Bennett reflects, “Henry’s ‘waking up’ did something to all of us. Everyone in the room felt it.” Music, it would seem, has the capacity not only to stimulate an individual’s sense of awareness, but also to connect them with anyone within earshot. It creates a kind of communal womb within which a diverse set of human beings are able to discover life, meaning, and purpose together. Or, to borrow a turn of phrase from the ancient Hebrew poet, music serves as the means by which “deep calls to deep.”
Like many of the other elders we meet in the film, Henry’s playlist contains religious music, which is interesting in its own right. But it almost doesn’t matter if the music is explicitly religious or not. Nor does it matter if it has lyrics, if it is completely instrumental, or if its genre is rock, pop, symphonic, or gospel. What matters is music’s uncanny ability to tap into something that no psychotropic drug could ever touch. In other words, music has a power that exposes the limits of our understanding, especially when it comes to how we understand our fragile minds and bodies.
Throughout the film, a number of similar themes emerge in terms of how people respond to this elusive power of music. One of the most common responses has to do with music’s intimate connection to our memory and, by extension, our identity. To address this aspect of the musical experience, Rossato-Bennett turns to renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks, who offers insightful commentary on the ways in which music interacts with the brain. His research suggests that part of the reason why those suffering from dementia respond so favorably to music therapy is because it activates more parts of the brain than any other stimulus. It is music’s ability to connect with the whole of our brain that enables it to both forge and recall our central identities. Because our identities are tethered to a lifetime of memories, Henry and others are able to re-acquire their identity through the power of music.
In addition to its connection to the mind, music is experienced as irreducibly physical, visceral, and even sensual. The impossibility of hearing music without our bodies becomes crystal clear when we meet Denise, a woman who suffers from Bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Although she has used a walker for the past two years, things change when she listens to the personalized music that Dan has prepared for her. Music re-animates her body to such a degree that she literally casts off her walker and begins to dance. And of course, she insists that Dan join in the fun. The music would have it no other way.
Denise’s response to music is thoroughly embodied, but it is also highly emotional. For Alzheimer’s patients, this is an important aspect of music’s power. In fact, part of the success of music therapy depends upon choosing music that has prior meaning for the individual, which means that it is correlated with memory and feelings. While we are still in the womb, music inscribes itself in our motions and emotions, our bodies and our feelings. So the music we hear today not only recalls those original moments in which our life was first taking shape, but it also creates a space in which we are able to feel ourselves in relation to the world around us.
In short, music is powerful because it connects to and enlivens the whole person—our head, our heart, and our gut. In a bit of irony, this is exactly why Dan encounters such resistance in his attempts to introduce personalized music therapy into elder care facilitates. As one of the doctors in the film suggests, “we haven’t done anything medically speaking that touches the heart and soul of a person.”
Here then is the core problem that Alive Inside identifies. Music may have privileged access to our “soul,” but there is little room in the modern world for thinking of people in terms of their “soul”—that core humanness that we all hold in common. It is thus all the more noteworthy that so many of the doctors, elders, and caretakers featured throughout Alive Inside repeatedly use the language of “souls,” “spirits,” “life,” “light,” and “joy” to describe the effects of music. In fact, what is perhaps most surprising about this seemingly “natural” tendency is that it isn’t surprising at all. Without any prompting or hesitation, most of us will use spiritual terminology to articulate what music means to us. This doesn’t mean that all of our musical experiences are “religious” per se, but it does suggest that, as it connects with the whole of our selves, music resists a purely material understanding of what it means to be human. There is something “more” to us that cannot be reduced to the sum of our parts. And music, possibly more so than any other cultural form, elicits this sense of something greater, something larger, something infinitely expansive.
Put differently, like a human being at full stretch, music never just exists. We may not hear it at first, or we may be too distracted to notice. Our ears may not be fully attuned to its intricate harmonies, or we may intentionally ignore its siren call. But it is always there, stirring us, calling us, inviting us to move our bodies in concert with its rhythms and encouraging us to sing along with its rapturous melodies. It is inspired, energizing, and animating. Music is alive. And if Henry’s viral video is any indication, life begets life.