BBC Two’s new reality show, Rock Till We Drop, doesn’t have the most compelling premise. A search to find new musical acts, with all members aged 64 or older, on paper tastes badly like anything that has come before it. X factor. England have incredible talent. That thing where Gene Simmons paid superficial attention to some school kids. These are all shows that used real people as fodder for some tough entertainment. To do the same with the elderly would be an absurdly bad look.
And yet, despite all that, Rock Till We Drop turns out to be one of the most positive things I’ve seen in years. The series aims to form two new bands and then form them to play a set at the Isle of Wight festival. Tonally, it’s a minefield. Too hard and it would have been cruel. Too easy for competitors and it would have been sweet. Too lax with Covid protocols and it would have been a disaster. There are a thousand ways to do a show like this badly, and only one way to do it right.
Miraculously, Rock Till We Drop succeeds. As we meet each potential new band member, we are told their story. Sometimes they struggled without being recognized. Sometimes they will be a hair’s breadth away from glory, only to have an unfortunate luck. Sometimes they will have been held back by their own lack of belief. On paper, this looks like a cynical attempt to cut the onion. But in reality, it’s a world away from the cheap gore stories you’d see on shows such as The X Factor. Here, these are stories of lives that have been lived. We see all that these people were, to better understand who they are now.
There is also a refreshing lucidity about it. Both bands on the show are mentored by Martin Kemp and Lady Leshurr, who quickly discover that it won’t just be a celebration of future life. There’s an incredible amount of hard work going on, and when the groups start training together in episode two, it quickly becomes clear that it’s going to be an incredible battle. A particularly telling moment comes when the festival organizer warns Kemp that the band will have to be good. It’s one thing to put them on stage, it’s quite another to predict the reaction of a drunken, sunburned festival crowd. This is a very good point. Of all the possible climaxes of a heartwarming reality show, you suspect the one people want least is a load of octogenarians getting bombarded with bottles of urine.
Reality sets in quickly. The chosen few must learn very quickly to work together as a group and sound cohesive. Some struggle. There are nonagenarian drummers who have to undo decades of big band style to learn All Right Now by Free. There are church singers who are not used to singing solo. There’s a bassist who, for reasons we may never fully understand, keeps saying the word “twang” out loud every time he plays a note.
The frustration is palpable. One drummer, a Merseybeat veteran who plays in a wheelchair, struggles so openly to adapt to a reggae beat that he becomes hard to watch. The tension even reaches the mentors. Kemp quickly turns into a dehydrated shell as he tries to keep everyone’s spirits up. Worse still, its musical director, Toby Chapman, always looks like he’s about to collapse and whip an entire room of retirees.
But soon, something beautiful happens. As the band members mingle, they begin to become the stars they always wanted to be. Seasoned leather-clad guitarists are starting to look the part. Singers find their voice. Without a doubt, my favorite is Carol, a 70-year-old music teacher who just happens to be a freak on bass. Every second she spends on camera is filled with utter joy and unwavering skill. The woman is a delight. She can’t be on TV enough. The world is a brighter place to have it inside.
This is the spirit that animates Rock Till We Drop. There’s so much heart on screen it’s a joy to watch. It’s still early days, but it could well be the hit of the year.