Racing down the stairs, hundreds of perky twentysomethings sing and belt arm-raising, upbeat tunes about American splendor in the first shot of Lee Storey’s doc Smile ‘Til It Hurts: The Up with People Story. Up with People—an ever-growing, apolitical organization that began in the mid-‘60s as a counter to the more aggressive leftwing leanings of the counter-culture movements—promoted peace and happiness through smiley-faced tunes and in-your-face positivity. They danced and crooned in the most inclusive, benign way: their lyrics and music rarely raised an eyebrow, more like offering a hug and a hand to join in. They wore the same, matching clean-cut clothes and their hair usually curled in the same cute, Wasp-y manner. Journalist P.J. O’Rourke said it best of Up with People, labeling their music and performances as “a magnificent grasp of the obvious.” Recruiting a diverse cast of young African-Americans, Asians, Native Americans, and plenty of whites, the group paved the way (as they put it) for a more tolerant society, minus the civil rights upheaval and violent riots.
Commonly pegged as a government-fueled mouthpiece, Up with People was personally selected by President Nixon in 1969 to perform at his inauguration, further cementing their role as a moderate, harmless chorus. Past band members and supporters, as well, provide candid commentary on their place in the political zeitgeist (“Up with People served a pro-war function. That’s what they did—so they could mention peace and they could mention people, but they were functioning in support of an enterprise that was blowing a lot of people into small pieces,” media professor Mark Crispin Miller humorously points out), but ultimately their words prove self-congratulatory and affirming. Except, though, one singer fully admits she may have followed a more active political path if presented with the direction; and, also, a few others remark about their differing political agendas with the MRA (Moral Re-Armament), the religions movement that sprouted the music group and program. Gladly, however, everyone recalls the music as uniformly dull and uninspiring; the band, though a commercial failure, did galvanize many followers.
Gleaning various talk show appearances, White House events, and international performances, Storey stitches together an array of archival footage ranging the ‘60s until now in his portrait on the benevolent, all-American Up with People. Unfortunately, the film is as insubstantial and irrelevant as the group itself, providing no probing insight into its ultimate purpose and function, or how they managed to survive all these years. The documentary is predicated on hearsay, as in the flimsy, shallow depiction and investigation of Nixon’s apparent involvement with the group. In his pursuit to stay even-handed, Storey superficially presents a world of happy-go-lucky pacifists, fighting the good fight with words and not fists, but only skimming the surface when it comes to the behind-the-scenes agendas. Smile is a nice trip down memory lane, but the tunes are nothing to sing about.