My college seminary classmates, knowing my theatre background, teased me prior to our graduation that I would one day produce a contemporary version of the ultra-perky musical troupe, Up With People. They predicted, however, that mine would be titled "Up Yours, People!"
Little was I aware then of the true history of Up With People, which was founded in 1965 and has reportedly performed for 20 million people worldwide between now and then. Thanks to a fascinating new documentary, Smile 'Til It Hurts: The Up With People Story (screening as part of the 13th annual DocuWeeks, running now through August 20 in both Los Angeles and New York), the seemingly well-intentioned organization's less-than-pretty roots have been exposed for all to see.
Smile 'Til It Hurts reveals that Up With People was the happy, public face of a cult-like Christian sect known as Moral Re-Armament, or MRA for short. Founded in response to the global devastation wrought by World War II, MRA's leaders recruited optimistic young people into a globetrotting chorale that would be endorsed by the Nixon administration and funded by major American corporations. Up With People would be embraced by Pope John Paul II, become the first non-marching band to perform during halftime at the Super Bowl, and would continue to be satirized today by the likes of South Park (remember "Getting Gay with Kids"?) and The Simpsons. Though Up With People went bankrupt in 2000, it was re-established in 2005 with an emphasis on community service.
While the director of Smile 'Til It Hurts, Phoenix-based attorney Lee Storey, wisely resists criticizing Up With People members (which included a young Glenn Close, who is seen in the film), she doesn't hold back recounting its leaders' excesses. These included lavish lifestyles funded by naive troupe members' "tuition," their approval or disapproval of marriages and sexual relations between singers, and their moral hypocrisy in being, as one commentator in the film states, "part of an establishment that was blowing people to pieces" in Vietnam.
One gay former member of Up With People, Eric Roos, is interviewed in the film. Though he could be accused of having an ax to grind, it's no surprise when Roos states, "In Up With People world, 'gay' didn't exist." And yet, more than a few gay and lesbian people, myself included, look back at Up With People with fondness as a seemingly-utopian if campy model of social integration and acceptance.
Perhaps the most telling image in Smile 'Til It Hurts about how far cultural attitudes have shifted in the US since Up With People's founding is a fleeting one. It shows a Southern picketer in 1968 holding a sign that depicts a black man's profile and reads, "Will this be our new Uncle Sam?" With an African-American leading our nation forty years later, we've learned the answer to that then-cynical question. Who's to say Up With People hasn't played a significant part in ushering in our current, more tolerant era?
Click here to watch the trailer for Smile 'Til It Hurts: The Up with People Story.
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.