An elderly man, sitting in a wheelchair with his head slumped over, suddenly comes to life when he hears music from his youth through headphones; it’s as if his entire being wakes up. Afterward, this man who seemed barely able to communicate talks animatedly about what he heard. “It gives me,” he says, in words that stumble yet come out clearly, “the feeling of love.”

“Alive Inside,” a documentary about a remarkable program aimed at helping the elderly and infirm regain connection with their memories, is full of such moments; Music here seems to have a miraculous power to lift up, to awaken, to reinvigorate. (The philosopher Kant, we’re told in the film, called music “the quickening art”; it does, indeed.) Social worker Dan Cohen discovered, years ago, that giving iPods with personally programmed music to nursing-home residents helped them feel more alert and happier. “Music connects people with who they have been, and who they are,” he says in the film. Filmmaker Michael Rossato-Bennett, filming Cohen for what was to have been just one day, became entranced with Cohen’s work (and his nonprofit organization Music & Memory), and spent three years making this film.

It was time well spent: “Alive Inside” won the best documentary award at the Sundance Film Festival this year (and was voted best documentary at the Seattle International Film Festival by the SIFF pass-holder group), and excerpts from it have already gone viral on YouTube, helping Cohen raise funds and expand his program. Physicians speak to the camera about its promise (medication, says one, dims a person’s sparkle and light; music brings it out), but the listeners themselves are the most eloquent. A woman struggling with Alzheimer’s joyfully listens to the Beach Boys and Beatles, transforming before our eyes. “It can’t get away from me,” she says, surely referring to her sense of self, “if I’m in this place.”

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or

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