Review: ‘Smile Til It Hurts: The Up With People Story’
Of all the strange and powerful and crazy and life-altering events that occurred in the 1960’s the UP WITH PEOPLE chorus was among the most defining, but as the documentary film SMILE TIL IT HURTS suggests, it wasn’t always a positively defining undertaking. The film consists of two very basic elements, contemporary interviews with the individuals who were involved at the time and archival footage of the events of that bygone era. However, the film becomes anything but very basic as it opens the flood gates of knowledge about an era of turbulence of which many younger generations likely have no understanding.
Directed by Lee Storey, SMILE TIL IT HURTS utilizes the contrast of the perfect, utopian Brady Bunch appeal of the UP WITH PEOPLE sing-outs with the underlying implications of the Moral Re-Armament movement that supported and backed the UP WITH PEOPLE front. On the surface, UP WITH PEOPLE was an organization that seemed incapable of flaw, but in reality many of the group’s members would come to find themselves torn between their own genuine beliefs that what they were doing could change the world for the better, yet at the same time it was being exploited and perverted for purposes that didn’t always align with their beliefs.
The various documented reels of film that are used in SMILE TIL IT HURTS are a lesson in history, one which you’ll not find it textbooks. The film’s interviews, while less dynamic than the archival footage, contain the bulk of the substance in the film. An interview with one minority cast member of UP WITH PEOPLE builds to an emotional moment as she reveals her first real experience with the extreme cruelty of racism, recollecting a moment in which she faced a man with a gun, intent on standing his prejudiced ground and all she could muster the courage and ability to do was to start singing one of the UP WITH PEOPLE songs titled WHAT COLOR IS GOD’S SKIN? It’s a powerful scene that beautifully illustrates the one aspect of life in the 60’s.
One of the most amazingly unbelievable pieces of archival footage, surreal in it’s appearance, is when members of the Up With People cast are visiting a native African tribe in their homeland and performing their trademark song, Up With People, in the tribe’s native tongue. The image created of these 1950’s style teens wearing cardigans with their guitars strapped around their necks as the African people being performed for sort of casually dance and appear to have a good time, almost as though they were doing so to be polite.
As the story of UP WITH PEOPLE unfolds before our eyes, it becomes apparent that the powers that be at the top of the MRA and UP WITH PEOPLE were not holding true and sincere to their stated cause, abusing the organization’s incredible popularity and influence as a means to secure power and sway the flow of politics and even to support the continuation of the Vietnam War. One of the truly shocking revelations of SMILE TIL IT HURTS is that there are so many former members that speak their minds in this film that it’s hard to believe the organization was ever perceived as a meaningful movement with good intentions.
SMILE TIL IT HURTS is a surprisingly shocking, funny and informative documentary. At one moment disturbing, at another moment humorous, the film bounces back and forth as not to become a completely depressing journey. Some of the lighter moments include one member’s recollections of what it was like having to make yourself smile all the time, an act that should represent and bring joy that at times produced pain and discomfort for those cast members. Another former cast member recalls UP WITH PEOPLE’s epic half-time performance in 1982 during Super Bowl XVI in Detroit.
Whether you see SMILE TIL IT HURTS as an informative documentary, a humorous flashback to another time and place or as a valuable social commentary, the film is certainly worth seeing and deserves attention. While the film is a historical peice, it also has equally as much value in today’s world, in politics, corporate policies and social relations. The film is likely to have as many people tearing it down as it will have cheering it’s praises. My only advice would be to view the film with an open mind and a desire to learn about another piece of our history from the horse’s mouths, so to speak.
SMILE TIL IT HURTS: THE UP WITH PEOPLE STORY will be screening in the DocuWeeks Film Festival from July 31 through August 20 in Los Angeles and New York.
LA Screenings: July 31 â€“ Aug 6
NY Screenings: Aug 7 â€“ 13