By Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times Film Critic
7:05 PM CST, January 17, 2013
To see "56 Up" is to be reunited with an old friend. Make that 13 old friends, together again for a documentary project the likes of which the world has never seen.
It all started in 1964, when Britain's Granada TV gathered 7-year-old schoolchildren from divergent economic backgrounds and asked them to talk about their dreams, their ambitions, their fears for the future.
That 40-minute program went so well that future director Michael Apted ("Coal Miner's Daughter," "Gorillas in the Mist"), who was a researcher on the original show, came back to interview everyone seven years later to see what the passage of time had done to their thinking. He's been back every seven years since, making for a remarkable string of eight documentary features that add up to a matchless portrait of our time.
One idea behind the original "Seven Up," inspired by the Jesuit notion of "Give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man," was to see whether England was still in the grip of a Dickensian class system that doomed the children of the poor to inferior lives.
One message of "56 Up" and in fact the entire series is that personality and resilience trump economic station as a predictor of happiness (though obviously not material comfort). As one of the group pointedly says, "Life is not there to be regretted, life is there to be lived."
Apted has also been the interviewer on all the documentaries, and that continuity has been invaluable in encouraging from-the-heart candor from the participants. They speak to him as if they were talking to an old friend or perhaps to an avuncular therapist they've been going to for decades.
One pleasure of "56 Up" is the ability to continue to eavesdrop on private lives, to see how things have turned out for these individuals as compared to what they hoped for in earlier episodes.
This latest film features a generous selection of footage from all seven previous ones (expertly edited together by Kim Horton), so even a lack of previous knowledge is no barrier to full enjoyment here.
For those looking for life lessons from these stories, two key ones emerge: the significance of family, especially a lasting relationship, for personal happiness, and the importance of education for success in the workplace and the world.
More than previous episodes, "56 Up" deals with the annoyance interviewees feel about how the world has reacted to their stories. Several felt irked that viewers tend to think they know all about them when they really don't, and in point of fact three of the original 14 were irritated enough to leave the series at one time or another, with only one still absent.
Peter, for example, who is newly returned after a 28-year absence, is candid that he is returning now because he is happier and because he wants to publicize the Good Intentions, the band he is now in.
Neil, who was Peter's childhood friend in Liverpool, has had perhaps the most unconventional life path of any of the group. An intense, wary man, he was a homeless wanderer in the Scottish Highlands at age 28. But for the last seven years he's been living in Cumbre in Northwest England and serving with distinction in local government. You never know.
Perhaps the most resilient of "56 Up's" participants are a trio of women — Sue, Lynn and Jackie — who were best friends growing up in London's lower -class East End and have among them weathered all manner of difficulties with enviable unflappability.
"56 Up" saves its best participant for last. That would be fellow East Ender Tony. Determined to be a jockey when he was young (and proud of once being in a race with the great Lester Piggott), Tony couldn't make a career of it and ended up "on the Knowledge" at 21 and a licensed London cabbie at 28.
Proud of the celebrity the "Up" series has given him — he gleefully recounts how a fellow cabbie once ignored American astronaut Buzz Aldrin to him ask for his autograph — Tony's buoyant spirit remains as infectious today as it was at age 7.
To witness Tony's journey from a young man who was contemptuous of women to a 56-year-old who cries on camera when talking about the love he feels for his wife is to understand what makes "56 Up" such a singular film and why it's such a privilege to be able to watch Apted's project as it continues to unfold.
No MPAA rating
Running time: 2 hours, 24 minutes
Playing: At Landmark's Nuart, West Los Angeles