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’56 UP’ movie review: One-of-a-kind documentary captures 50 years of life

56 Up

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Adolesence and adulthood, education and employment, marriage and divorce, kids and grandkids. The UP series of documentaries, which began in 1964 with Seven UP, has chronicled all these stages of life and many more through its interviews with 14 British people as they grew from wide-eyed schoolchildren to middle-aged adults.

Peter at age 56 with his band, as seen in 56 UP, a film by Michael Apted.
First Run Features

The filmmakers revisit this group every seven years to see how their lives have changed, and the series’ latest installment, 56 UP, opens in Atlanta on Feb. 8.

As we catch up with the group, now in their mid-50s, we get to observe a fascinating cross-section of lives and personalities. Some subjects are celebrating 20-plus years of marriage, while others have divorced —some to remarry, others not.

Some have kids who are graduating college, some have kids who are still living at home, and others are enjoying – and in one case, raising – their grandchildren.

Many have prospered in their careers and beefed up their bank accounts, but the economic downturn since 49 UP has left others fighting for their jobs rather than starting to plan for retirement.

All have the opportunity to reflect back on their lives in 56 UP. Have they achieved the personal and professional goals they aspired to as children, teenagers and young men/women? How have these objectives evolved? And, perhaps most importantly, are they happy?

The answers would be riveting by themselves even if they were limited to the confines of 2013. But aided by footage from the seven previous UP installments, directors Michael Apted and Paul Almond intercut these present-day conversations with footage from when the subjects were 7, 14, 21, 28, 35, etc. These clips add an enormous element of gravitas to the interviews as we literally observe their evolving personas (physical, spiritual and emotional) before our eyes.

Apted is an excellent interviewer, making his subjects comfortable (no doubt the result of having known them almost their entire lives) and asking insightful questions. Unfortunately, with more than 10 subjects to cover, it’s tough to go too in-depth, and sometimes you’re left wanting more.

That’s a minor quibble, though, in what is an extraordinary movie as a whole. By employing a mostly traditional technical and storytelling approach, Apted leaves the focus on these individuals and their incredible stories. Credit editor Kim Horton for combing through what must be thousands of hours of footage and weaving it together in an emotionally powerful package.

So, what if you’ve never seen a film in the UP series before? Don’t let that stop you – 56 was my first UP movie, and I was transfixed throughout. For newcomers to the series, the biggest problem won’t be struggling to keep up, it’ll be figuring out when they can set aside 14 hours to catch up on the previous seven installments.

Grade: A

"56 UP" opens in Atlanta on Feb. 8 at the Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.

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