I have a confession to make. It may shock some, considering how I wind up seeing just about everything that comes out in a given year. Are you ready? Well, here it is. This is my first time watching any of documentarian Michael Apted’s Up series. This new installment ’56 Up’ is definitely an interesting entry point into the documentary franchise, as it’s self contained enough to remain fascinating. I’m not in love with it like many of my fellow critics are, but I’m fairly confident that a lot of that has to do with not having seen any of the prior installments. It’s a real credit to Apted’s skill as a filmmaker that an admittedly too long movie at almost two and a half hours only starts to wear on you near the end. That’s me though, and I know lots of people are absolutely captivated by this latest look at a group of average human beings. The documentary hit theaters last week, so this is a bit of a belated review (it honestly took me forever to pop in the screener I got), but better late than never, right? Regardless, anyone who likes this series will love this latest look at where these individuals are now.
There’s obviously not much of a plot, just the new check in with the subjects of the original documentary ‘Seven Up’ from back in 1964. Basically, the idea was to interview a group of 14 average children from different backgrounds (the unifying factor was that they were all from England, though from different parts), asking them about their lives, their hopes, and their dreams for what was still to come in the future. Every seven years, a new documentary checks back in on them. This time around, we’re looking at these people in their mid 50’s, and it’s safe to say that things are continuing to change for them all. Many of them are now grandparents, looking at small children around the ages that they were when they first started participating in this series. Aside from Charles Furneax, who stopped doing it after a few installments, the people interviewed continue to be Bruce Balden, Jacqueline Bassett, Symon Basterfield, Andrew Brackfield, John Brisby, Peter Davies, Suzanne Dewey, Nicholas Hitchon, Neil Hughes, Lynn Johnson, Paul Kligerman, Susan Sullivan, and Tony Walker, though some of them haven’t participated each and every time (this is almost a reunion of sorts). They’ve had all manner of lives and we’ve been privy to seeing it all unfold in even year increments. The more you’ve seen of this series, the better it must be, but even newcomers like myself likely won’t be able to avoid being sucked into their simple stories.
It’s interesting to see these people all approaching the new documentary in different ways. Peter is literally there to promote his band, for example. A lot of them have rather simple stories, and more so than not there’s an upbeat nature to it all. The exception is Neil, however. His detailing of being homeless for a time and a failed politician are rather sad, even if there is a poignancy to his story. He wallows a bit too much for my tastes, but his section is essential to the quilt that Apted is weaving here. I’m sure that many of the people will be on the same track when they return in their early 60’s for the next one, but they’ll retain their relevance and importance. This series has always purported to examine life through the maxim of “Give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man”, so seeing where everyone continues to head is essential.
Michael Apted has a very simple way of showing this all to us. Though I may quibble with his pacing and the overall length of the documentary, I appreciated the calm visuals that almost give a home movie look to it. Apted speaks from off screen and serves as the narrator, subtly getting his subjects to continue to talk about their lives. It’s clear that he’s passionate about this continued project, and it shows in the work. I wouldn’t say he elevates things or anything of the sort, but he really knows how to make this stuff work.
Overall, I’m sure that I would be more effusive in my praise of ’56 Up’ if I had seen the prior documentaries and been a fan of the series, but this functions as a more than satisfactory entry point into the story. As we slowly reach the point in the experiment where the subjects will start to pass away, Michael Apted is making sure to look back on their lives as well as still look forward, and that’s an important choice. Those of you looking for a simple and effective documentary would do well to check this one out. I have no problem recommending it whatsoever…
–Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!