“SMILE ‘TIL IT HURTS: THE UP WITH PEOPLE STORY explores the clean-cut, smile-drenched singing phenomenon Up With People. The group was born in response to the counter-culture of the ’60s, spun from the controversial maneuverings of a religious sect called Moral Re-Armament, backed by millions of corporate dollars, and launched around the globe to exemplify conservative American values. Told by former Uppies whose compelling stories take us on an intimate journey, the film reveals what happens when ideology, money and groupthink converge to co-opt youthful idealism.” (official festival synposis)
SMILE ‘TIL IT HURTS is a lucky film in a number of ways. It’s about a fascinating and bizarre slice of recent American history. It cracks open all sorts of weird secrets about said bizarre slice. It’s recruited all sorts of former “Uppies,” who all have something interesting (and sometimes frightening) about their time with Up with People. But more than any of that, it’s an extremely well-made documentary. It is, at turns, very informative and very funny, very strange and very affecting.
It’s hard to imagine that anyone could have ever taken Up with People seriously. Archival footage of various concerts and events they sang at are often eye-wideningly hilarious. Clean-cut American kids dropped into the African savanna, singing for indigenous people who had surely never seen anything like them (I’ve never seen anything like them), can only prompt disbelief. And then they start reeling off the list of places they went and people they met – across every country and continent, to meet every world leader you could name. They sold out the Hollywood Bowl. They captivated Nixon. They performed at Super Bowl halftime shows. And there were just so damn many of them! But the music? My God, the music. As one cast member put it, “it’s drivel beyond comparison.”
But Up with People was not just some embarrassing song and dance troupe determined to make you smile (’til it hurt), it was a boggling propaganda machine originally formed by the ultra-conservative religious sect, Moral Re-Armament (MRA), and later financed by a bevy of corporations that will blow your mind.
Former Up with People and MRA member John Sayre says it best when he says that, “at some point, [Up with People] became something else.” But what exactly? One of the main questions posed in SMILE ‘TIL IT HURTS is whether or not Up with People, and likewise the MRA, was a cult. Certainly, both groups were often led by stringent, charismatic leaders. Most of the former Up with People and MRA members interviewed in the film express a common feeling of being consumed with the ideals and practices of their associated groups. There were strict rules, and stepping out of line, or speaking for yourself (even marrying without express permission), could led to punishment or demotion within the associations, even a full excommunication. Some of the former members walked away before this could happen, and some of them still reel from the pain inflicted on them by a glorified music group.
SMILE ‘TIL IT HURTS tells the not-so-squeaky-clean story of one of America’s great punchlines, and does it in so compulsively watchable a manner, anyone can enjoy it. It’s hilarious and it’s sad, and it can’t help but make you want to question even the purest of intentions.