‘Alive Inside’ shows the power of music on the mind

Everything you always suspected about music is true. Scientists can point to the parts of the brain that music stimulates, and talk about how this is where our deepest memories and feelings reside. The phenomenon even stretches back before birth, as the sound of a heartbeat establishes the sensory proclivity toward music.

This scientific material is offered in “Alive Inside” to buttress the rather remarkable anecdotal evidence we see for ourselves on screen, in which the power of music is used to revive the personalities of people with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Filmmaker Michael Rossato-Bennett tags along with Dan Cohen, a music-therapy proselytizer (and founder of the nonprofit Music &Memory), as Cohen travels to facilities for people living with dementia.

Cohen’s method is frequently repeated during the documentary, but never wears out its welcome. He approaches people whose memory loss has put them in a dulled or lethargic state, and invites them to listen to music from an iPod shuffle.

When the song begins, the change is almost immediate: eyes light up, limbs begin twisting, and stories pour out. If it isn’t a definitive argument in favor of using music as a therapeutic tool, it’s certainly dramatic.

The film goes on to lobby in favor of getting such therapies into hospitals and retirement communities, painting a dire portrait of the pharmaceutical-industrial complex that delights in ringing up thousands of dollars of drugs for patients every month but balks at a $40 iPod.

Serious establishment voices are not much heard here, but then this isn’t really a documentary — it’s a work of activism, and a beautiful one. If “Alive Inside” helps change the culture of treatment for elderly people, that would be a very good thing.

It becomes more than activism, too. Seeing the joyful transformation that erupts when an Alzheimer’s patient hears the Beach Boys’ “I Get Around” suggests we might need to re-evaluate the generally accepted hierarchy of Important Things in Life.

Material success and adult accomplishments are all well and good, but maybe we should pay attention to the part of our brain that values four-part harmonies, silly lyrics, and a danceable beat. If this movie’s evidence is to be taken seriously, those allegedly frivolous things are what remain at the human core even after the rest is lost.

“Alive Inside” (3½ stars)

A stirring documentary look at music-therapy advocate Dan Cohen’s efforts to get the power of song into the treatment of people with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. The anecdotal results, captured here, are remarkable, and the movie also builds an activist case for more thoughtful eldercare in general.

Rating: Not rated; probably PG for subject matter

Showing: Varsity theater

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