Though Michael Apted’s series of “Up” documentaries typically get pegged as pinnacle achievements in documentary film, they’re actually landmarks of television. This was reality TV before the genre was a thing, and for possibly the only time in the genre’s history, the subjects were somewhat reluctant and unwilling participants.
“I have this ridiculous sense of loyalty to [this series] even though I hate it,” says a now 56-year-old Suzy to Apted. “56 Up” is simply yet another installment in the longest running franchise in history. It reacquaints us with characters we’ve already met and grown to admire, and they’re now at an age and a point in history when they finally seem to get it. This is TV, and like any program, you want to see what happens next and how it will all end.
But also like television, contemporary streaming services have made it possible to binge watch over 50 years of a person’s life in a couple of days, cutting down the wait time of seven years that has followed the most loyal patrons of the program. Having come to the series in this way, it becomes clear why the “Up” series is typically classified as a set of films: each installment is about something new. My assessment of all the films looked at how the overall theme of “21 Up” was not the same as what we see by “49 Up.” The characters have grown mentally and physically, the line of questioning has changed, their ideas have evolved, and Apted finds a new thing to say about people in this point of their lives.
“56 Up” is a film about looking back fondly on what’s come before. Many of the subjects this time around are optimistic, have no regrets (even though they surely have before), they’re humble about their successes in life and at ease with the moments of pain. In “49 Up”, Apted asked them all a question about what they think of the program as a whole, and all 14 treated it as something of a “pill of poison” every seven years. Now at 56, they finally seem to get the point.
“It’s a picture of everyone, of any person and how they change,” says Nick, one of the series’ most interesting and humorous subjects. Meeting with Suzy for the purposes of doing a joint interview (just one more of Apted’s pleasant surprises and developments that he still manages to find time after time), they share how when they watch the finished product, essentially a 15 minute clip, they react by saying, “That’s all there is to me?”
Though the “Up” documentaries give us insight into the lives of these 14 individuals, fan favorite Neil is quick to point out that people don’t really know him, and that their avatars make up a better picture of “someone”. We don’t know these people in particular, but we know people like them, and we see ourselves in one, if not all of them.
Just as with any film in the series, some of the patrons have had some tough times, revealing depth, struggle and pain going on behind the scenes. For Jackie in just the span of the last seven years, her ex-husband was killed in a car wreck while suffering through cancer, all days before their first child was born. Now she’s begging David Cameron to find her a job in her condition after losing her benefits.
Others like Peter, who left the franchise after age 21, announces plainly that he’s back to promote his band The Good Intentions. His life has not been full of tragedy, but his trajectory that led to this time in his life and the poignant reason as to why he left the series in the first place, is not completely unlike Jackie’s more tragic story.
Apted has again found touching surprises upon his latest visit, some more impressive than the others, and though the film alone is not mind-blowingly different from all the ones that have come before, it’s a reminder of how important the collective whole is.
Writing now two years after the filming and release of “56 Up”, we’ve learned that Lynn Johnson has passed away, the first of the series. If we do get a “63 Up”, Apted will face yet another new challenge, but looking at the quality of this latest film, this portrait can only get richer.