The granddaddy of all reality programming returns to U.S. theaters this October as the long-running 7 Up series launches its latest entry, 49 Up. Originally conceived in the '60s as a one-off TV special examining a cross-section of British seven-year-olds from different economic classes, the series has since revisited those original subjects every seven years throughout their lives. The entire past series is available on DVD for those interested in catching up on the history, but there’s really no need to watch them in advance as the latest entry does an admirable job of summarizing the key events in the lives of its subjects.
Twelve of the original 14 subjects agreed to appear in 49 Up, a healthy average the series has miraculously managed to maintain throughout the entire 42 years of the project. The documentary was filmed by director Michael Apted, a researcher on the very first film who took the reigns from the second film on, keeping the series alive while concurrently adding to his lengthy directorial resume that includes such notable films as Coal Miner’s Daughter, Gorillas In The Mist, and The World Is Not Enough. Apted isn’t just the director here though, as he takes a deep interest in the lives of these individuals and acts as the interviewer to steer their conversations. This is clearly a very personal project for Apted and his lifelong familiarity with the subjects grants him a level of intimacy that yields particularly insightful results this time around.
Although each participant has a different life story, it’s striking how similar they have become as middle age encroaches on them. There’s a universal sense of resignation and contentment, and a marked increase in grey hair and waist sizes as they begin to enter the realm of grandparents. While the original premise highlighted the stark differences in class sensibilities, showing uneducated, lower-class kids as well as upper-crust private school students, the subjects seem to largely ignore or conceal those class differences as they age. It’s clear some of them are far better off than others, but there’s little sense of entitlement one might expect based on their beginnings. Instead, they concern themselves with similar general matters relating to their families and careers, making it easy for viewers to identify with all of them.
The film follows one subject at a time, beginning with brief highlight footage of their appearances throughout the years before delving into the latest updates. Each subject gets around 10 minutes of screen time, getting viewers up to speed on their past seven years and engaging Apted in their thoughts about the film series. It’s those thoughts that really give this entry its weight, as the participants are especially candid about how the series has impacted their lives. Most of them resent the series, dread the emotions it brings up when it returns every seven years, and only agree to participate because they recognize its overarching significance as a groundbreaking sociological study. These are not modern-day reality TV stars looking for future fame and fortune in Hollywood; they’re ordinary people who have been caught up in an extraordinary lifetime project.
Written by Caballero Oscuro