Alive Inside’s journey to the screen began three years ago, when filmmaker Michael Rossato-Bennett met social worker Dan Cohen.
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- Katie Couric (ABC TV):
We're Going to Bring Music to Change Life for a Million People with Dementia
- Dr. Oliver Sacks, Neurologist & Author:
Alzheimer's & The Power of Music
- Director Rossato-Bennett:
Morning Music for Alzheimer's Lasts All Day
- TED Talk:
The Making of Alive Inside
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Through Cohen, Rossato-Bennett met Henry, a 94-year-old dementia patient who had been provided with an iPod loaded with a selection of music tailored especially for him. In a scene documented in Alive Inside, Henry sits listless and disconnected until earphones are placed on his head. Almost immediately, his eyes focus, his posture straightens and his face lights up as he listens to some of his favorite music. Henry even sings along with Cab Calloway, the jazz superstar famous for his rapid-fire scat singing.
“Henry had basically been sitting in a hallway for 10 years with his head down,” says Rossato-Bennett. “Dan found out what kind of music he liked and put it on an iPod for him. When they gave him his music for the first time, he just woke up. He rose out of his chair and started conducting. He went from dead to alive in front of my eyes. It was like he was reoccupying his own body.”
Henry’s startling response is a graphic demonstration of research showing that music engages the brain more fully than any other type of stimulus. Scientists have found that the entire brain lights up when exposed to music, especially the areas that correspond to pleasure, movement—and memory.
“One of the big problems we have in elder care is a massive over-reliance on antipsychotic drugs,” the director says. “Right now, 20 percent of all patients in nursing homes are using them, but there’s a great deal of evidence that personalized music is the most cost-effective tool for people like Henry.”
But, as Dr. Bill Thomas, a gerontologist and advocate for long-term care reform, points out the film, “The health care system imagines the human being to be a very complicated machine. We have medicines that can adjust the dials, but we haven’t done anything medically speaking to touch the heart and soul of the patient.
“What we’re spending on drugs that mostly don’t work dwarfs what it would take to deliver personal music to every nursing home resident in America,” Thomas says. “I can sit down and write a prescription for a $1,000 a month antidepressant, no problem. Personal music doesn’t count as a medical intervention. The real business, trust me, is in the pill bottle.”
In the time since Rossato-Bennett’s first life-changing meeting with Dan Cohen, Alive Inside has played a significant role in the growing awareness and acceptance of the value of music as therapy. Cohen’s program has expanded from three nursing homes to 500, in part with the help of private donations spurred by the film. The state of Utah has plans to provide elders with personalized music, and Wisconsin is launching the first federally funded program to reduce the use of psychotropic drugs by introducing patients to personalized music. With more than 1.5 million people in assisted care, the strides for improvement are significant but there is still a lot of progress to be made.
But the filmmaker knew the path to success was never certain or simple. Working with a small initial grant he received, Rossato-Bennett produced and posted a clip of Henry on the Music & Memory website in hopes of raising additional funding. Even the filmmaker was astonished by the response.
“It went viral,” he says. “In just one week, almost 7 million people watched a six-minute clip on the web. That clip elicited an outpouring of emotion beyond anything I could have ever imagined. We started getting individual donations of up to $5,000 from people we didn’t know, because they believed in the project.”
Rossato-Bennett used those private donations, additional grants and a Kickstarter campaign to fund the production of Alive Inside. He also approached renowned neurologist and best-selling author Oliver Sacks and musician Bobby McFerrin for help. Both agreed to appear in the film.
“They rarely participate in projects like this,” says Rossato-Bennett. “Dr. Sacks, who has published a book on the subject of music and the brain, told me that music imprints itself on the brain deeper than any other human experience, restoring emotions and memories that were previously inaccessible. And Bobby provides one of my favorite moments in the movie when he does what he calls ‘the Pentatonic Rock.’ It’s a graphic and really fun demonstration of how deep inside us music lives.”
Once the film was finished, Rossato-Bennett wondered if it would find an audience. He would get his answer at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival—an event Rossato-Bennett says he almost didn’t enter.
“There was a $100 fee and I didn’t really have a hundred bucks to spare,” he recalls. “On the night submissions closed, my wife convinced me to just go for it, but by the time I got to FedEx, it was closed. Then she said to me, ‘Isn’t the 34th Post Office open until midnight?’ We had 20 minutes to get there. I got stuck in traffic six blocks away and ended up running from there. I got to the post office just as the doors were closing. When we got the call from Sundance saying we were in, it was beyond my wildest dreams.”
Not only was the film accepted, Alive Inside went on to receive the festival’s coveted Audience Award. “That was an experience beyond belief,” says Rossato-Bennett. “At Sundance, people told me things like, ‘I cried tears of joy from start to finish,’ and ‘I’ve been coming to Sundance for 21 years and this is the best film I’ve seen here.’”
The positive response to the film has grown as it continues to earn accolades and recognition around the world, recently taking home the prize for Best Documentary at the Milan International Film Festival.
Perhaps the filmmaker’s most challenging goal is to make this type of therapy reimbursable through health insurance. “You can get thousands of dollars a month for drugs, but not $40 for a music player.”
Rossato-Bennett says that his life has been transformed by the making of Alive Insidein ways that he never expected when he began filming. “I hope it will bring the story of Dan’s work to the world and awaken hearts and minds to the healing power of music. Music has great lessons to teach us about what it means to be human. I learned that from the sweet and vulnerable souls I met making this film.
“Through music, we have the power to help millions of people awaken to who they are and what they can be,” Rossato-Bennett adds. “Music gives us the ability to reach a population that might otherwise be unreachable. It allows us to touch hearts and ignite souls. Through music, we can help the old and the aging sustain their humanity and by doing so, inevitably, we’ll prove our own.”
- Directed by Michael Rossato-Bennett
- Running Time: 73 Minutes