What makes a documentary so fascinating sometimes is that they often shape up to be something entirely different than was intended. "Sherman's March" was meant to be a docu on General Sherman in the Civil War, but became about director Ross McElwee's troubled love life instead. The "Up" series started out as an examination of the class systems in England, but that quickly faded as the director (and audiences) learned that the lives of the subjects themselves were far more worthy of documenting.
The "Up" films are an ongoing reality/experimental documentary series that update the lives of 14 people every 7 years from age 7 and onward (currently up to 49). The cast consists of Charles, Andrew, John, Jackie, Lynn, Sue, Suzie, Paul, Simon, Peter, Neil, Nicholas, Tony and Bruce.
Here's a rundown of each film to give you a sense of what they are about. Note: I will try to avoid a lot of spoilers, as part of the fascination of the series is learning how each character develops.
"7 Up" introduces the cast as young children (at the age of seven) as they are brought together at a party, the zoo, and a playground. We learn how each of them has a different background/lifestyle and what their viewpoints on race, marriage, goals, etc. are.
"7 Plus 7" shows the cast in their early teenage years and how their interests, relationships with family/friends, goals have changed.
In "21 Up," the cast re-unites as they view the first two films on the big screen together. Most of the casts are in or out of college and are deciding what to do with their lives. Some people like John are determined to focus on a career, while others like Suzie and Neil are struggling with depression.
"28 Up" sees the group of people settling into their careers. Tony is a married taxi driver; Bruce is teaching, etc. Others like Suzie, Paul, and Nicholas have drastically changed their lives (which I won't spoil). John and Charles are not interviewed in this film.
"35 Up" sees the group going through a particularly rough time in their lives as many have lost their parents and have divorced their spouses. Charles, Peter, and Simon are not interviewed in this film.
"42 Up" sees the group focusing more on family. Their children are growing up and attending high school. The best update, however, is that Neil (who in the previous film was in bad shape) has turned his life around for the better. Charles, Peter, and John are not interviewed.
"49 Up" shows the middle-aged gang becoming grandparents and how they are spending more time doing relaxing activities. Peter and Charles are not interviewed.
What makes the "Up" films so fascinating is that they make us (the audience) reflect on our own lives and how much we change over time. In some ways, it is sad to see these people on film grow so quickly as it reminds one of how short our time on Earth really is. On the other hand, it is exciting to know that despite a few bumps along the way, we still have a lot to look forward to down the road. For instance, look at the character of Neil, who is arguably the most engaging subject. From "21 Up" to "35 Up," Neil's life was in shambles. He didn't have a career, a marriage, or a home. He was traveling from place to place barely scraping by. In "42 Up," life was looking up for Neil as he found a gig in politics and seemed to have a better grasp on life. Obviously, his life wasn't perfect, but for him life was just beginning. In that sense, the film can be very inspiring. When life is looking down, all is not lost. Life can look at any point at any age. You just to have overcome obstacles in life and work hard at it. I think Neil put it best in "28 Up" when he said "The real problem of becoming a success in the world is when you have to tackle yourself."
I have to applaud director Michael Apted as he did a great job in casting the wide array of people for this film. Despite the class differences, we really do get to see our own selves in each one of these characters. We may not agree with their political views, lifestyles, or understand growing up in England, but the matter of life and its complications are universal. As cliched as it may be, I do believe the film could have easily been titled "Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Life, But Were Afraid To Ask," as the film tackles and explores the various stages of life, good (marriage) or bad (divorce).
Another fascinating revelation is how our core personalities are essentially mapped out at age 7. If you observe a person like John, he is essentially the same person from age 7 to 49. He's upper class, prissy, political, intellectual, everything he is at age 49. Looking back on my own life, I realize I am not much different from then to now.
Even though the series is stunning, I do have to question director Michael Apted's interview skills at times. In certain films (namely "35 Up") Apted seems to have his own agenda of what he wants to hear which leads to accusations or questions that seem downright offensive. For instance, he throws the word "failure" around to both Neil and Tony. Granted, he wants to get the cast to open up, but interrogating them like a prisoner isn't the way to go about it. It's not surprising people like Charles, Peter, and sometimes John refuse to show up on film because they don't want to deal with Apted. Even Jackie, who has appeared in every entry thus far, mentions how hurtful Apetd can be in his questioning in "49 Up." Apted doesn't seem to realize that this line of questioning, while beneficial to the documentaries, might effect the people themselves causing low self-esteem or what not.
Video and Audio:
As you can guess, the audio and video quality improves more and more with each film. In "7 Up," the B&W full screen picture is grainy and filled with black scratch marks, while the audio is rough and often garbled. In "49 Up," the film is now shot in color digitally (and presented in widescreen) and looks clear as day, while the audio is top notch.
"7 Plus 7" through "42 Up" are all presented in fullscreen and in color (except for footage from "7 Up" which is in B&W or redish in some cases). The video and audio specifications are not given anywhere on the box or on the disk.
On each of the six disks, there is a text director biography, an About First Run Features text, and a photo gallery (which is on every disk except five).
On disk five ("42 Up"), there's a coming attraction trailer for "Fighter" and a commentary track by director Michael Apted. The track is superb in that Apted reveals some facts that I was curious about myself, such as why Peter hasn't appeared and what career he has been pursuing. There are also some interesting tidbits about how Apted shares the film's profits with the cast, how he keeps in touch with everyone in between films, and how folks send the cast members gifts and sometimes-even money to help them out. My only gripe with the track is that the film is not muted, so the commentary and the film's dialogue blend together. It drove me nuts!
On disk six, there are four previews for other First Run Feature DVDs (including the wonderful "Bright Leaves") and a 29 minute interview between Roger Ebert and director Michael Apted. The interview discusses such topics as how the series started out as a commentary on class systems, but developed into a series about life, human conditions, and transitions. Apted also discusses why choosing the year 1964 to start the series with was not coincidental. This interview is well worth watching.
The "Up" series is a rewarding and emotional ongoing documentary series that should be essential viewing for any self-respecting film lover. Highly recommended.
Film and television enthusiast Nick Lyons recently had his first book published titled "Attack of the Sci-Fi Trivia." It is available on Amazon.com.