“Smile ‘Til It Hurts: The Up With People Story”

    Chances are you know about Up With People. Even if you’re too young to remember them from their heyday, you may have seen the perky pop star wannabes on TV performing at The Super Bowl’s half-time shows as recently as 1986. Even more recently, you may have seen the group being parodied on “The Simpsons” or “South Park” (where the perpetually cheery gang is spoofed as “Get Gay With Kids”).  Founded in 1965, Up With People were predominantly known for their clean-cut image: the boys wore suits and ties, and actually combed their hair. The girls wore skirts, but not miniskirts. Needless to say, there wasn’t one iota of a reference, even cryptic, to sex or drugs in their songs. The lyrics were innocent, and the melodies were, admittedly, as catchy as they were upbeat. Social responsibility was a big theme in their music and persona. While watching the group perform, via the archival footage of “Smile ‘Til It Hurts”, “audiences in 2009 will view Up With People’s colorful costumes and seemingly unbreakable smiles as something of a cornily entertaining delight, like watching reruns of those vintage TV musical/comedy variety specials of the ’70’s. Conservative values aside, in some ways Up With People were ahead of their time. Even before the subject is poignantly addressed by some of Up With People’s African-American alumni, the audience realizes that the group was unyielding in its dedication to racial equality at a time when that issue was a very, very hot one in America. And, it was indeed life-affirming to watch the clean-cut group perform their traveling “Sing Out” show in the riot-era Watts district of Los Angeles, winning over the really rough local population.

“So what’s wrong with that?” you may be asking. Nothing, except that Up With People was created by a post-World War II ultra-conservative religious group called Moral ReArmament (MRA) as a response to the drug- and free love-dominated counterculture of the 60’s. The MRA was founded by Reverend Frank Buchman, a Christian evangelist whose goal was unambiguously to convert people to Christianity as well as to a more puritan lifestyle. They knew that the power of youth was needed to spread their message, which was in part yet another variation of the recurrent “If you don’t agree with us, you’re either (1) not a patriot, (2) a Communist, (3) a pervert, etc… ” theory. In a true gem of archival footage, a very young Glenn Close (yes, that one…) is seen at a MRA event, declaring her distaste for American materialism over social resposibity. Throughout the years, Up With People maintained their close association– a marriage, so to speak– with MRA. Some participants interviewed in the film liken both MRA and Up With People to a cult, and some also imply that the singing group was even used as something of a tool to gain access to dignitaries in other countries. After all, the group did travel all over the world, performing for everyone from popes to Presidents ranging from Eisenhower to George Bush Sr. The association between MRA and Up With People is indisputable, but whether or not you believe the young singers were exploited by the MRA, or that they benefited from the association, or both, is up for discussion. Indeed, many of the alumni of the group speak very positively of their experiences. Others are bittersweet about them (such as Featured Vocalist Linda Blackmore Cates), and some are blatantly negative. One alumnus doesn’t mince his words in stating that Up With People’s music was, to put it politely, less than quality. Still others claim they didn’t know about the heavy moral and political influences behind that music. The viewer may wind up with mixed feelings about the whole situation: despite the questionable influences behind Up With People’s mission, it’s hard not to be moved by the film’s many participants who sincerely believed– and still do– that they were participating in a different kind of revolution.

In addition to archival footage juxtaposed with new interviews with Up With People alumni, director Lee Storey also gets some priceless input from such notables as writer PJ O’Rourke (He hilariously recalls how conspicuously out of place the perky group looked when they performed in Washington Square Park in 1968.) and Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary. One scene of archival footage borders on the surreal: when Up With People sings their famous signature song, translated into an unidentified tribal language, to a group of African natives who look absolutely stunned. (The audience’s reaction is likely to be the same.) Out of the many participants in this film who talk about their experiences, some truly hysterical moments come from openly gay Up With People alumnus Eric Ross. His catty reflections are laugh-out-loud funny. Ross hilariously confirms what astute viewers will note from the beginning…that a lot of Up With People’s song-and-dance numbers were… well, kinda gay. (“Gay” in a campy, kitschy sorta way…) Ross even reveals (Surprise!) that many of the guys in the group were gay, even though it was absolutely NOT talked about. (For the record, Up With People did NOT have an official anti-gay policy.) Ironically, it was America’s political and social shift to the right, with the election of Reagan, that made Up With People’s conservative musical mission seem less, shall we say, necessary. Plagued with financial troubles and falling popularity, the group folded in 2000… but in the film’s epilogue, we learn that Up With People was reborn in 2005.

Like all well-made documentaries, “Smile ‘Til It Hurts: The Up With People Story” does much more than just tell a story. Through the subject it profiles, the film mirrors America’s history and experiences from the turbulent ’60’s right on through to 2009. While the musical tastes and hairstyles may have changed, politics haven’t: the divisive “us versus them” attitudes and the idea of the “silent majority” that are explored in the film have stayed to this day. The movie strictly maintains its neutrality because director Storey lets everyone– from a diverse cast of Up With People alumni to Up With People officers past and present alike– speak their mind. But more than just being well-made, “Smile ‘Til It Hurts: The Up With People Story” is also funny, fascinating, and very, very entertaining. And yes, you may find yourself leaving the theater singing the group’s eponymous signature song…

“Smile ‘Til It Hurts: The Up With People Story” is playing exclusively in New York City’s IFC Center as part of the 13th Annual “DocuWeeks” festival. Visit for more.

Jed Ryan

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