Anyone who’s ever felt a tinge of nostalgia from hearing a song again for the first time in years understands the psychological links between memory and music. Dan Cohen, a social worker and the main subject of Alive Inside, took this knowledge to the nursing homes where he volunteered. Having recently founded the nonprofit organization Music & Memory, Cohen realized that the best treatment for Alzheimer’s may not be inside a prescription bottle, but in the songs that hold a special meaning for those afflicted with the disease. As he explains to 90-year-old Angela in the documentary’s opening scene, “I want you to try and let the music take you back into your memories. To travel back in time.”
Throughout the film, director Michael Rossato-Bennett observes how individuals suffering from Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia spontaneously become wide-eyed and spring to life at the drop of a familiar musical beat, waving their arms and moving their feet as windows into their personal histories open for the first time in ages. Even the smallest victories of reviving patients suffering from memory atrophy feel transcendent. But rather than delve into the backstories that inform the ailing patients’ connection to the music that stirs their memories, Alive Inside opts instead to lambaste the bureaucratic barriers that stand in the way of making music an accessible form of therapy.
The doc demonizes nursing homes as big bad institutions (referred to by one doctor as “solitary confinement”) without much hard evidence to fully corroborate their resistance to unconventional therapies and the poor state of medication and care at facilities devoted to patients with dementia. Multiple talking heads are trotted out with the same criticism about pharmaceuticals, such as Dr. Bill Thomas, who states, “What we’re spending on drugs that mostly don’t work dwarfs what it would cost to deliver personal music to every patient in America.” The sheer power of what music therapy is capable of should have been a guide for the filmmakers to realize that simple and intimate narratives are often the most evocative and universal gateway of appealing to the hearts and minds of audiences.