SMILE ‘TIL IT HURTS: The Up With People Story explores the clean-cut, smile-drenched singing phenomenon Up With People. Since 1965, this peppy youth group has sung to 20 million people worldwide, performed at four Superbowl halftime shows, and been parodied on The Simpsons and South Park. Talent was not required of its members, just a common enthusiastic vision to change the world one squeaky-clean song at a time. But its cheery façade concealed the more complicated reality of an organization founded on conservative American ideals and cult-like utopian ideology.
Up With People was born in response to the liberal counter-culture of the ‘60s by the ultra-conservative religious sect, Moral ReArmament. Over the years, they were embraced by world leaders from US Presidents Nixon, Reagan and George H.W. Bush to King Juan Carlos of Spain, Queen Noor of Jordon and Pope John Paul II. The organization’s access to global dignitaries and developing countries was noticed by corporate giants—like GM, Exxon, Halliburton and Searle—who gave millions of dollars to back the popular group.
Artistically cut with kitschy and never-before-seen archival footage, and the honest reflections of former members, SMILE ‘TIL IT HURTS: The Up With People Story reveals what can happen when ideology, money and groupthink converge to co-opt youthful idealism.
SMILE ‘TIL IT HURTS is director Lee Storey‘s début feature documentary. After learning that her husband was secretly a former member of Up With People,
curiosity reigned and she was compelled to begin her journey into filmmaking. Lee received her B.A. in English and M.A. in American Indian Studies from UCLA, and her law degree from U.C. Berkeley. She is an experienced attorney practicing law in Phoenix, Arizona.
Bijan Tehrani: Can you tell us a little bit about your background as a filmmaker?
Lee Storey: I never intended to be a filmmaker, so I don’t have any formal filmmaker training. I was married for fifteen years before I learned that my husband was a member of Up with People, so I started learning about its history and past and realized that this was a story that had to be told.
BT: What was your main motivation for telling this story?
LS: It’s an incredible and fascinating story about American history, culture and politics. It was an incredible story to learn about and many of the members were really excited to tell their stories; especially to an outsider like me. So while I had the personal motivation to tell about my husband’s personal history and background, I was truly captivated by the lives of all of the members.
BT: Why do you think that no one has tried to tell this story before?
LS: The archival material was never made available to the public until now. In 2000, the organization nearly went bankrupt due to the fact that they had an annual budget of 32 million dollars. When they closed their door in 2000, they took the 40 or so years of their history and just locked it away in a garage. They really weren’t interested in documenting their story, so I negotiated with them in order to use some of the footage. I felt that many of the members were aging and I knew that they had incredible stories mainly because they were such an important part of the counter-culture movement of the 1960’s. So I was really motivated to tell the story of these young and impressionable kids who were trying to change the world by joining this organization, not knowing where they would end up.
BT: How challenging was it to make this film?
LS: Everything about making a film is challenging, especially when you don’t know what you’re doing. This was a completely new art form for me, so I had to read numerous books, get advice from numerous people and even attend the Sundance Producers conference. While at the conference I met a woman who would eventually become my producer and a man who would eventually become my executive producer. Although challenging, it was also very fun, because I got to sit and watch archival footage in literally every kind of format from 35mm to 8mm and everything in between. It was so much fun because it was like reviewing a treasure trove of American history.
BT: Is it true that the government supported this group hoping that they would face off against the protestors of the Vietnam War?
LS: It’s pretty clear from the archival footage that Up with People was appreciated, promoted and idealized by the Nixon administration. They have worked with every president pretty much since they started; Gerald Ford actually attended many of their concerts. They were also supported by the corporate right, because Up with People supported an ideology that they were in line with.
BT: While doing interviews, did you encounter any member who, looking back, disagreed with the group’s messages?
LS: Most of the alumni today are completely unaware of their history. Today people come in for six months and pay $16,000 to have the privilege to go on tour with the group. I am getting e-mails from many of the alumni thanking me for making this film, because when they were with the group they got a much more sanitized version of what the group was all about.
BT: Do you have a DVD release planned?
LS: We don’t have a distribution deal in place yet, but we are definitely still trying to form a deal. We have had a lot of support from people and there are a lot of fans of the film who want to see the film released on DVD.
BT: Thank you for your time and I wish you much success with the film.