Michael Apted’s documentary “56 Up” is being released theatrically in the US, eight months after its premiere on British television’s ITV, the commercial broadcaster that produced it. The “Up” series, which began in 1964 with a group of seven-year-olds and has since tracked them at seven-year intervals as they grew into men and women, may be the second longest-lived “franchise” in film history after the James Bond movies. For viewers who’ve followed the films as they’ve come out every seven years, it’s arguably a form of interactive cinema — we age along with the subjects.
Notably, the subjects of “56 Up” refer to it as a TV program, rather than a film or simply a documentary. If “7 Up” were begun today, it would more likely be a reality TV concept instead of a film, although TV showrunners would undoubtedly grow impatient with the gap between seasons. But “56 Up” brings something valuable to the table, a dimension rarely seen on reality TV — a self-critical edge.
Several of Apted’s subjects decry the impact his films have had on their lives. In “28 Up,” Peter, then a teacher, delivered criticism aimed at the Thatcher government, for which he was attacked by the tabloid press. Infuriated, he dropped out of the “Up” project. He rejoins it with “56 Up,” but does so largely for self-promotional reasons. He and his wife are now members of a country/ folk band called the Good Intentions, and he hopes the film will give the group some publicity. (“56 Up” includes clips of them rehearsing, as well as a brief glimpse of a music video.) Peter seems secure that this time around he’s being represented on his own terms. He also refrains from saying anything politically provocative.
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The most troubled person in “56 Up” is Neil Hughes, a small-town politician who’s spent long periods of his life homeless. Despite finally earning a respectable place in society — he’s now also a lay preacher — he’s barely scraping by financially and has never had a successful long-term relationship. Not surprisingly, his desperate appearances in previous “Up” films touched viewers, but he complains about receiving mail from people who think they know exactly how he feels. He insists the films have captured only a small amount of his emotions and personality. This man clearly hasn’t benefited from his time in the spotlight, brief as it may have been.
“56 Up” often introduces its subjects by showing their childhood or teenage selves pontificating about love and marriage. Inevitably, their youthful cynicism or idealism is contradicted by the facts of their adult lives. The people who scoff at marriage wind up tying the knot in their early 20s, while those who long to join the institution are divorced by 35. There’s an element of cheap irony to this technique, but Apted’s device of constantly switching back and forward between his subjects’ youthful and middle-aged selves is genuinely powerful — and often unnerving, as is the contrast between black-and-white 16mm film and color digital video.
Several of Apted’s subjects say that “7 Up” was intended to demonstrate that a Dickensian class system persisted in ‘60s Britain, a thesis with which they disagree. “56 Up” seems to have no such didactic purpose. It’s clear that the 14 subjects of “7 Up” were supposed to be a representative cross-section of England, but the gap between that goal and reality is now glaring. All but one are white, and although the original filmmakers couldn’t have foreseen this when selecting the children to feature, all are straight. When cab driver Tony simultaneously notes that he makes much more money during Ramadan and complains about immigrants altering the neighborhood where he grew up, the film recognizes the ways in which Britain has changed since the project began.
If “56 Up” shows a welcome — though possibly self-serving — willingness to criticize itself, it lacks edge in other respects. Few of its subjects’ lives have changed in dramatic ways since “49 Up.” The recession and Britain’s reign of austerity have hit a few of them hard, but most seem to be living a comfortable middle age. Fortunately, the structure of “56 Up” is complex enough to add layers of distance and irony to its subjects’ present-day stories. As it reminds us, no one’s life turns out quite like they planned it, even for relatively happy people. This truism takes on new power when we get to watch people age before our eyes.
56 UP | Directed by Michael Apted | First Run Features | Opens Jan. 4 | IFC Center | 323 Sixth Ave. at W. Third St. | ifccenter.com