In 'Alive Inside,' music breaks through the fog of dementia

In "Alive Inside," music unlocks worlds of those with dementia.

Alive Inside is a small but vibrant miracle. The documentary finds hope and joy in one of our nation's bleakest settings, nursing homes.

Three years in the making, it follows the determination of social worker Dan Cohen to disseminate a remarkable finding: Listening to music that has some personal resonance can liberate and locate people lost in the fog of Alzheimer's and dementia.

You see an example of the Lazarus experience as soon as the film begins. A 90-year-old woman is nearly unresponsive when asked about her youth. She wants to help, but, hollowed out, she no longer has any access to her own life.

Then she is fitted with an iPod playing Louis Armstrong singing "When the Saints Go Marching In." Almost immediately, she is transformed, chatting volubly about her childhood and family.

Time and again in Alive Inside (awarded a jury prize at Sundance), you see a light switch on in the eyes of older people with dementia. Years melt away and sadness lifts as the sound of old favorites - it's subjective, anything from Beethoven to Sam Cooke - ignites ecstatic reactions.

Suddenly, people who were having trouble identifying common household objects are spouting verse after verse of lyrics they haven't heard in decades.

Even the speculative science about why music has this startling impact is fascinating. As neurologist and author Oliver Sacks ( Awakenings), one of the documentary's talking heads, notes, "Music is inseparable from emotion."

Alive Inside also examines the uncomfortable attitudes toward aging in our youth-besotted culture.

Personal music isn't a cure for Alzheimer's or dementia, but it does provide a blessed caesura from the daze, a reminder of the person cocooned inside.

The substance of this documentary is four-star inspiring. The film itself rates three stars. That averages out to a wondrous 31/2.

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Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory

Directed by Michael Rossato-Bennett. With Dan Cohen. Distributed by BOND/360.

Running time: 1 hours, 14 minutes.

Parent's guide: Unrated ().