(Not Rated) Four stars
Checking out the Up series has been on my to-do list for many years, but 49 Up marks the first installment I’ve seen. For those of you familiar with the series, all you need to know is that the new film opens Friday at Key Cinemas Beech Grove. For everyone else, a little background is in order.
Inspired by the maxim, “Give me the child until he is 7 and I will give you the man,” a team of documentary filmmakers in the early ’60s set out to catch a glimpse of the future of Great Britain by talking to its children. A collection of interviews with a demographically diverse group of 7-year-olds, 7 Up became the first installment in a landmark series.
Every seven years since, the team has revisited the original group of children for a fresh set of interviews and a new film that incorporates clips from earlier installments to present a unique look at lives in motion. Cut from 1964 to the present — the 7-year-olds are approaching 50 and director Michael Apted, who has been at the helm since 14 Up, has six films worth of material to draw from as he crafts the seventh.
You should know that 49 Up is a low-key affair — those looking for grand drama will be disappointed. Instead, settle back and prepare for a fascinating visit with 12 of your neighbors (all but two of the original interviewees participate). Imagine watching someone talk about their life — their family, their jobs, their place in the scheme of things — while seeing film clips of them from six earlier ages.
Now imagine being one of those people. Really, imagine having six documentaries of your life — your life — available as individual DVDs or in a handy box set. Your own words and images, edited by someone else, following you wherever you go. No matter where you move or what you do, sooner or later someone will realize that you’re one of “those 7 Up kids.”
Of course, being a minor celebrity for life is the dream of many, many people these days, but 7 Up happened decades before the reality TV explosion. I’m determined not to reveal any of the details of what’s going on with the participants, but I will tell this: only one of the interviewees ever tried to cash in on his fame and the attempt did not occur in the last seven years. Forget the attention whores of shows like Big Brother, these are ordinary people who became part of an extraordinary project and who must live with the consequences.
There is as bit of friction in 49 Up — one of the 12 is quite angry over the way she was presented in an earlier installment — but overall this is a much more genteel production than the recent spate of aggressive documentaries. Apted and company clearly realize that a film displaying the life trajectories of a dozen people does not need to be jazzed up.
As I watched the documentary, I thought about what a treat it is to be able to witness the lives of these people, and how terrific it is not to be one of them. If someone walked up and said they had footage of me from various points in my life spouting off about my beliefs, loves, hopes and dreams, I would immediately drive to the country, find an abandoned root cellar, climb inside and board up the door.
Watching 49 Up will make you think about love and death, about the decisions you’ve made, about how wonderful and awful and precious the whole journey is. Quiet and thoughtful, it is a compelling piece of work.