Film Review: Alive Inside

It is because we live in a society where we tend to commit vulnerable members such as people with dementia to care institutions that we need documentaries like “Alive inside”. This very moving film, winner of the “Audience Award” at the Sundance Film Festival, 2014, follows a New York based social worker Dan Cohen as he volunteers in a nursing home, takes music to the isolated residents suffering from dementia, and in the process brings them alive before our very eyes. Sharing music with nursing home residents is a relatively easy task with the undeniable power of music to stir emotions and lift mood. The novel and creative use of iPods and MP3 players with personalised playlists proves to be an effective therapy for people with dementia who have lost their identity and connection with their loved ones.

Dan Cohen invites filmmaker Michael Rossato-Bennett to document his journey as he works with the staff and long-term residents at Cobbler Hill Nursing Home in Brooklyn, N.Y. Henry, one of the residents who hasn’t recognized his own daughter for many years undergoes a significant transformation once he has listened to his favourite songs on the iPod; it seems that the music activates a switch inside his mind that unlocks a door, and the ‘old’ Henry starts to emerge. Music works as the key with a magic code that penetrates deep in his memory and helps him remember who he is releasing him from the confined walls of the nursing home. The poignant transformation is so touching and emotional that tissues and lots of them are a must while watching.


Renowned Neurologist Oliver Sacks (Musicophillia: Tales of Music and the Brain) explains “Henry has been quickened; he has acquired his identity for a while”. “Music has more ability to activate more parts of the brain than any other stimulus, and the part of the brain that processes sound and music is the last to go in Dementia”.


It would seem obvious that this kind of therapy should be readily available in long-term care settings, but Dr. Bill Thomas (American Geriatrician and author of “Second Wind: Navigating the Passage to a Slower, Deeper and More Connected Life”), explains “The healthcare system imagines the human to be a very complicated machine. We have medicines that can adjust the dials; blood pressure, oh turn that down; blood sugar, oh turn that down. We haven’t done anything to touch the heart and soul of the patient”. He argues that the chemical drugs are where the business is, and that he could easily write a prescription for $1000 worth of pills but not for a $40 iPod. Director Michael Rossato-Bennett, who supports Dan’s attempts to bring personalized music into as many care-homes in America as he can, reiterates “We have no problem spending tens of thousands of dollars on drugs that don’t work, but if we could delay people going into nursing homes – even for 6 months – we’d save billions”.


In the film, exploring the complicated business of “growing old” adds another dimension to the argument for music therapy by addressing other issues such as families delegating almost completely the care of their elderly relatives to formal carers and the evolution of the care-home industry. The filmmakers suggest that growing old is another part of being alive, and that elder-hood is just as real and complicated as childhood, adolescence and adulthood.


Although this documentary highlights the problems with the health care system and the lack of choice in nursing homes in the USA, there are recognizable parallels with the UK NHS and social care system. Many of our British older people lose their independence and dignity in hospitals or long-term care institutions, through lack of stimulation and being isolated from the rhythms of everyday social life.


Director Michael Rossato-Bennett stresses that “The simple truth is that we are vibratory beings, and when the vibrations stop, so do we. In the words of T.S. Elliot, “You are the music while the music lasts””.


Calling for social and healthcare reform for older people, this film is a compelling activist documentary reinforcing the need to maintain the identity of our elders by keeping their memories and legacy alive with music.


Since making the film Dan Cohen and his organization Music and Memory ( have reached over 950 care homes in the USA, and their goal is to spread the use of iPods and personalized playlists to over 60,000 sites.


Review by Sarah West filmmaker

Address for correspondence



Oliver Sacks (Musicophillia: Tales of Music and the Brain)


Alive Inside film website:

Alive Inside Foundation:


Alive Inside will be released by Picture house Cinemas in the UK nationwide in August 2015.


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