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Now Playing! ‘Lives Well Lived’ Lights an Amiable Fire

I have to believe that Pete Townshend long ago recanted, privately if not publicly, his shocking 1965 provocation that launched The Who to rock ’n’ roll stardom. After all, the lyrics of “My Generation” notwithstanding, he took pretty good care not to die before he got old. He must have figured out along the way that immortality was a great goal, premature mortality not so much.

The lively elder statesmen and women in Sky Bergman’s affectionate documentary Lives Well Lived: Celebrating the Secrets, Wit & Wisdom of Age aren’t famous, but their life stories are altogether remarkable and—central to this jamboree of late-in-life vitality—ongoing. But the top takeaway, and the real reason to watch the doc on KQED Saturday, Sept. 11 at 6pm or on KQED Plus Sunday, Sept. 12 at 2pm (or stream it on the PBS website through Sept. 28) can be summed up in two words: Get cracking!

Do you think you’re productive? Making the most of your days and hours on Earth? Meet the now-retired doctor who’s been getting up before dawn since the 1950s to work out and then make mozzarella, before moving on to the rest of his day’s activities. Or the nurse-turned-professor-cum-ecologist-turned-activist-cum-plasphalt innovator-turned painter. Next to them, we’re all slackers. (Not you? OK.)

At its best, Cal Poly State University Prof. Bergman’s one-hour collection of short, piquant portraits works as an inviting motivational speech. These folks are not just busy but joyful, and not in the habit of wasting time. In fact, you sometimes get the impression, via the occasional wisp of impatience, that the interruption of the film crew is messing with their day and slowing them down.

The subjects’ love of life—their curiosity, passion, restlessness—provides the main source of inspiration. Equally important, though, is the persistence and determination they displayed at key junctures in their youth when the skies were blackest and powerful forces were against them.

A Jewish couple recounts how who were shipped separately to safety in England through the Kindertransport before World War II began, and met and married years later. The young mother interned in a camp by her government with thousands of other Japanese Americans, whose husband proudly enlisted in the 442nd Infantry Regiment and was killed in combat, describes how she found a way through her prolonged depression. The Latvian teenager separated from her mother while fleeing Eastern Europe during World War II resolved not to become a victim.

Bergman prompts the subjects of Lives Well Lived to offer nuggets of wisdom and advice, which provide the most obvious and most superfluous moments. Thankfully, with one exception they refrain from earnestness (which is indistinguishable from pretentiousness), and just smile at their good fortune, happiness and luck.

Lives Well Lived, which celebrates the continued vitality of its subjects as much as the fullness of their “primes,” serves as a smiling rebuke to the subtext of “My Generation.” The song implied that older people were out of touch, stuck in the mud, allergic to change, a hindrance to progress and a weight holding society back. This buoyant film puts the lie to all of that, with joie de vivre to burn.

Copyright 2021 KQED