DVD Review: 56 Up

STUDIO: First Run Features | DIRECTOR: Michael Apted
BLU-RAY & DVD RELEASE DATE: 7/2/2013 | PRICE: DVD $29.95
BONUSES: commentary, interview with director
SPECS: NR | 138 min. | Documentary | widescreen | Dolby Digital 5.1

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie | Audio | Video | Overall

If you’ve somehow never heard of The Up Series, and its latest installment, 56 Up, here goes: England, 1964. Fourteen seven-year-olds from various socio-economic backgrounds are interviewed for a documentary. Every seven years, they are interviewed again, presumably until they die, as part of a cinematic experiment to see if, by age seven,  a person’s life’s path is pretty much set in stone.

56 Up movie scene

56 Up is the latest installment in Michael Apted’s documentary series chronicling the lives of a group of people every 7 years.

Forty-nine years later, director Michael Apted (Firstborn, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader) and thirteen of those kids march on. This being a life-long project, 56 Up is less about making a great movie and more about using cinema as a sociological tool. In some ways, the results are predictable: the rich kids are still rich, and everyone else is struggling, but getting by. On the other hand, Neil, who was homeless in his 30’s, is now fighting for the common man as a local politician and public figure- an inspiring twist of events. He still struggles with personal issues and frustrations, but he’s doing okay- a common theme during 56 Up. Our stars may not be living their dreams, but they’re comfortable with who they are and where they’ve ended up. Most of our characters have been through a divorce, yet many of them find themselves in a new, seemingly healthier, relationship. Like real life, that’s about as close to a happy ending as one can expect.

The one thing this series can be faulted for is its refusal to go beyond the obvious, boilerplate questions. By sticking to the general details of each person’s life, and never probing deeper, Apted’s interviews are always blander than they should be, given the unique potential of this project. If the filmmakers are trying to remove any personal bias from the series, they’re succeeding- but at the expense of the story, which after half-a-century remains on the level of “somewhat interesting television” rather than “timeless art.” Limited by its dry, BBC-documentary style, The Up Series is always watchable, but rarely compelling.

Most interesting to this installment is the way this film series has itself affected the lives of its subjects. Peter, who had dropped out of the project in the 80’s because of negative audience feedback to his anti-Thatcher politics, has finally returned to the project- but only to promote his new country band, The Good Intentions. He doesn’t much care for the series. Neil shares his resentment towards the audience: “People tell me ‘I know exactly how you feel’ after watching me, but none of you really know anything about me.”

As much as they may whine, however, they keep coming back for more. If The Up Series teaches us anything, it’s that rich or poor, we all ultimately value the same thing in life: our stories. Long after these folks expire, the tales that they tell will be there for future generations to soak up. What can be more important than that?

DVD extras include the obligatory commentary track, as well as an interview with the director by the late Roger Ebert recorded in 2006.


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About Memo

Memo Salazar attempts many things and accomplishes few. His big three are making films, music, and comics, but he'll throw photography, graphic design and film criticism into the ring for good measure. He'll even make you a hand-painted t-shirt if you ask nicely. You can track his activity here when there's nothing else to do at work.