It’s not likely that anyone will be seeing 56 Up without first having seen the rest of the Up series. And those who have seen the other seven installments will have a hard time not watching the latest. In that regard, it’s somewhat review-proof. Fortunately, I can still recommend it by way of recommending the entire Up series as a whole, which these days is not difficult to get your hands (or at least your eyes) on. In anticipation of the Montreal release of the film this weekend, Cinema du Parc has been screening the other films, while here in the U.S., all of them are available to stream via Netflix Watch Instantly.
The Up documentaries are as significant and necessary as any film series, and it’s one of the few franchises through which you can see characters grow and change over the course of half a century (Germany’s Children of Golzow documentary series is another, while we can dream that Truffaut’s fictional Doinel series could have continued had the filmmaker not died too soon). It began in 1964, not as a planned record of lives or social experiment but as a one-shot special for Granada Television’s World of Action current affairs series. Paul Almond directed the short work, titled Seven Up!, which looked at children aged 7 from around Britain and of varied socio-economic backgrounds to offer a glimpse of those who’ll be running the country in the year 2000. Later, Michael Apted, who was a researcher at Granada for the original episode, decided to revisit fourteen of the kids when they turned 14. And he’s made subsequent films (they air as multi-night specials in the UK) every seven years since.
Now they’re 56, and understandably most of the subjects (the number of which has dwindled surprisingly only slightly over the decades) are at a point where little is different compared to seven years earlier. At least personally. For some, the story has sort of moved on to how their kids and grandkids are doing, as their own course is rather static. One thing that is notable about 56 Up, therefore, is that it focuses more on how the world and England have changed over the course of 50 years. Rural areas are becoming urbanized, the East End of London is now filled with immigrants and the Olympic Park and, less locally, there’s the weakened economy, a turn of events that Apted is good to acknowledge was predicted by one of the series subjects, Tony Walker, back in 49 Up.
Fans of the Up films have their favorite characters and story arcs (mine is Neil’s), which they need to catch up with. Tony’s has actually been one of the most interesting, having gone from being a scrappy cockney kid in the East End to being a jockey to becoming a successful cab driver with two homes, one of which is in Spain. His is an especially fascinating journey if you’re aware that Apted had expected him to wind up in jail and had early on shot certain material presumptuously to serve as foreshadowing. He’s also the one character who I most assume made choices in his life, particularly those to better himself, as a result of his being in this series. He even started acting a bit, which could very well have worked out due to his already being on TV every seven years, and in 56 Up he tells a story about he’s more famous than Buzz Aldrin.
But even while the viewer-character reunion aspect of these films is in full force with 56 Up, there aren’t many surprises. The closest to major revelations come in the form of the return of a subject who hasn’t appeared in the series since 28 Up and with yet another unlikely friendship that has developed between two of the characters (the last time it was Neil and Bruce). Both of these things deal with the interfering nature the series has had on these people’s lives, as well as the reflexivity that’s been there since the second installment, 7 Plus Seven (aka 14 Up). With each film there’s more discussion of what they’ve meant or done. In some cases it’s fame, as with Tony, or a benefit to one’s charity, such as for John’s Friends of Bulgaria (in this film he claims an American director — my assumption is it was Francis Ford Coppola — saw the series and donated a bunch of money), and in other instances it can negatively affect a career, as it did Peter’s. From Suzy, Nick and John we tend to hear more about what they think of being a part of Up than see what there lives are like now. That’s probably intentional on their part.
At this point in the subjects’ lives, it makes sense that the narrative side of the Up series doesn’t have much going on, and its increased meta self-awareness components are the more satisfying. Still, as a social and filmic experiment, the Up documentaries also don’t have a whole lot of distinction in 2012. We can follow Tony on his website, for example. We can do this with other documentaries, as well, locating characters on Facebook or Twitter. And given how nostalgic we are at the moment, reunion specials for both fiction and nonfiction programs and movies are common and often similarly as immediate as seven years or less. I would think that many people would be over the series and its subjects by 56 Up except that I think a lot of its fans didn’t become acquainted with the films until the release of the previous installment, at which time the rest were out on DVD.
I don’t know if it’s just because that’s when and how I was introduced to the series, but it does seem that DVD and now streaming video are great for the films, which might be best as watched back to back, marathon-style, or at least relatively close together. Doing so tightens our perception of the achievement and point of the series, yet it also makes the recap footage slightly unnecessary and at times even tedious for its running time (in the U.S. it’s screened as a single, 2 1/2 hour feature). This archival reminder material primarily works for people who have never seen the previous films — which can certainly be the case for some viewers, who unfortunately just won’t have the right investment in any of the subjects — or those who haven’t seen these people since the last installment seven years before. With the accessibility what it is now, though, I bet a lot of fans (like myself) revisit the series before the release of a new one.
Ultimately, the Up films are really just about the first special, and everything since has been for curiosity sake. For a while, though, mainly from 21 to 35, there was a lot of soul searching and family building and unexpected paths being taken. Of course, the experience can be different based on your own age and point of view. When initially seeing the films when I was 29, it was 28 Up that was most substantial for me. Last year when re-watching, 35 Up was more interesting, because I was 35. I don’t want to say that I can’t wait to be 56 (who is excited about post-middle age?), but I do kind of look forward to seeing 56 Up again in 21 years, when it will mean something different to me.
The Upside: For those of us already fans of the series and invested in the characters over the course of seven films and 42 years (whether we’d followed along since the beginning or more recently grew attached), it’s a necessary continuation and curiosity.
The Downside: It won’t work for people who haven’t seen the rest of the series, and regardless it’s possibly the least interesting installment on its own since the abundant awkwardness of 7 Plus Seven.
On the Side: Some people — including subjects from the film — fear (or maybe hope) that 56 Up will wind up being the last of the series given that Apted is now in his 70s and had previously said he didn’t want anyone taking the project over. However, he recently stated that he might be okay with passing it to another director.
(Note: my grade for the entire series now stands at A-)