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Long before Boyhood and reality TV, the Up documentaries offered a cinematic glimpse into the passage of time. In all likelihood, these films will never be fully replicated because of the amount of time and effort involved, and 63 Up—the ninth entry in the series—now arrives with a tinge of sadness. Directed by Michael Apted, the films follow the same group of English people, all from different economic and social classes. Every seven years, Apted catches up with them, asking them about their lives, their outlook, and the world. This marks the ninth time these people have gone before the camera, and it’s astonishing so many of them are still willing to do it.
You don’t need to see the previous eight films to appreciate 63 Up. Apted and his team go through archival footage, starting with these people at age 7, then onward through 14, 21, etc. His method is simple: He spends between 10 and 15 minutes on one person, then moves on to the next, using a Jesuit motto as a framing device: “Give me a child until he is 7 and I will give you the man.” The idea is that, from an early age, anyone should be able to see the contours that shape adulthood.
The cumulative effect of 63 Up is like catching up with an old group of friends. All these people are kind-hearted, warm, and selfless enough to openly reflect on their lives. It is inevitable that audiences will identify with some subjects more than others. I always enjoyed hearing about Nick, a brilliant young man who would move to America and become a physics professor. Then there is Lynn, a woman who operated a mobile library for lower income kids, only to see the program be slashed during budget cuts. No one quite acts like a traditional documentary subject. They all have known Michael too long, and talk to him like an old teacher more than a filmmaker. His soothing, deep voice is always heard off camera, almost like he’s a spiritual figure.
Some of the subjects are politically engaged, so Apted asks about Trump or Brexit. There is also a sense of nostalgia, since most of their lives are in the past, not the future. It’s surreal how these people can recall the past interviews with such clarity, although they have the burden (or privilege) of being able to review their recorded answers. Aside from self-reflection, the most common topic, the one that almost everyone is eager to discuss, is their children and grand-children.
But the looming subject, one that the film handles delicately, is deteriorating health and death. It was reasonable to expect that everyone would survive between 28 Up and 35 Up, but now it is likely that some of these people will not make it to 70. In fact, this film includes a subject who must deal with a terminal illness, and another who died between this film and 56 Up. Apted’s interview style, warm, if a little dispassionate, keeps this material from being too maudlin.
There are few formal flourishes in the Up documentaries. Apted is a relaxed interviewer, often letting his subjects lead the conversation, and he uses the logic of memory in how he edits footage from everyone at a younger age. The film series is a fascinating thought experiment, although it is also melancholy (longtime fans may genuinely mourn). These people are so different, ending up in such different places in their lives. At some point during the film, someone will get you reflecting on your own life, and how much it’s changed every seven years.
63 Up opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema.
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