DOC-NYC Review: 56 Up


56 Up (First Run Features)
Directed by Michael Apted
Rating: 9/10

Back in 1964, director Michael Apted was commissioned by Granada Television for a program that looked at roughly a dozen 7-year-old schoolkids, interviewing them to get their thoughts on life and marriage, an interesting look at Britain’s class system. Seven years later, the program revisited the kids and again seven years after that, and so began a tradition that has continued to this day.

“The Up Series,” as it became called, could be seen as the very early precursor to reality television and while Apted’s career as a Hollywood filmmaker (and president of the DGA) kept him fairly busy, every seven years he would return to those original 7-year-olds for a status update.

Almost half a century later, they’re all still alive but clearly older with more wrinkles and body fat and less hair, some of them happier than others. Many of them were hit hard by the recession, but for the most part there weren’t any huge revelations in terms of changes in luck. Neil, once homeless is now involved in politics within his community on Cumbria, but still alone, making him one of the sadder stories even if he seems to be doing better than decades earlier. One of the more interesting returns is that of Peter, one of the original kids who opted out after “28 Up,” but has returned to showcase his band The Good Intentions; it allows us to determine whether not being under Apted’s microscope for three decades has led to him having a happier and more fruitful life.

It’s fairly obvious Apted has become a much better filmmaker even in the 7 years since “49 Up” and maybe it can be attributed to the experience of having done this same thing 7 times before, but his interview questions are far more probing, allowing for far more introspective responses and emotional moments. He also finds just the right moments from the subjects’ pasts to readdress and visit, making it quite an achievement in editing. The film is also particularly interesting when some of the subjects talk about living their lives on camera for the series and criticizing how Apted edited their thoughts together, not giving the viewers what they feel is an accurate representation of themselves.

There are evident recurring themes like divorce, as many of the subjects went through multiple marriages and yet most of them have found someone new while building up a family. It’s equally surprising how many of them have either gotten involved in politics, the education system, religion or all threes.

The biggest surprise is Tony, the young East End lad who wanted to be a jockey and eventually became a cabbie. You’d think he’d constantly be in trouble but in fact he’s built a nice life for himself and his family, even building a vacation home in Spain. His segment is a nice capper and well worth the wait after some of the more downer stories.

At roughly two-and-a-half hours, it might seem like a chore to get through it, but all of the individual subjects and how their lives have changed is infinitely fascinating to watch, since it’s not something we have many opportunities to see.

The movie ends in the same way as the initial Granada program, showing all the kids on the playground and cutting to their present day incarnations, an incredibly satisfying conclusion to another terrific installment of a film series that’s getting better and better every time it’s revisited.

56 Up opens theatrically on January 4, 2013.