A confession: I went into this doc with only the vaguest notion of what Up With People was, aside from shorthand for clean-scrubbed, conservative, and insipid, and the hope it might shed some insight on a very popular organization that appeals to clean-scrubbed do-gooder youths where I teach, FCA [ask your Christian friends]. Smile 'Til It Hurts, with its mix of talking-head interviews and epically cheesy archival performance footage [the 1986 Super Bowl halftime show!], did much more than deliver the goods. What I discovered about the history of these singing and dancing "radical moderates" was equal parts fascinating and fuuuuucked up.
Smile begins the Up With People story with an investigation of Moral Re-Armament, a zealot-y evangelical Christian [and anti-Communist] sect, and its cult leader-like founder, one Reverend Frank Buchman. He preached the Four Absolutes: absolute honesty, purity, unselfishness, and love, but what that meant for members was that Buchman was the absolute authority: he alone granted permission when and whom to marry, whether they could have children or even have sex. Oh, and there was the usual accrual of money and property, etc. Buchman died in 1961, and in 1965 MRA executive national director J. Blanton Belk founded a youth group that gave musical performances to counter the counterculture called Sing-Outs.
By 1968 the group was named Up With People and had broken from MRA with an eye to spreading its message through the mainstream media. It attracted earnest late adolescents who wanted peace just as much as their hippie peers--but without sacrificing personal hygiene. However, even after People officially severed its ties to MRA, it continued to be governed according to Buchman's cult-y manipulative methods. Yes, these kids got to travel the globe and meet world leaders and celebrities, but former cast members, including featured performers, tell of being dropped/shunned if they defied the diktats of the Up higher-ups. Some, like former Olympian rower John Sayre, continue to defend Up With People's world-changing agenda even after essentially being excommunicated. Others, like Frank Fields, an African-American member who got in trouble for criticizing Nixon, dropped out and disappeared. These people were naive college-age kids, but their present-day senior citizen selves still seem stung by these abrupt volte-faces.
The story of Up With People is a story of co-opted optimism. American presidents like Nixon embraced the performers' pro-America message of patriotism as a welcome corrective to the protests of their peers. In subsequent decades, as the troupes toured the world and stayed with host families in countries on every continent save Antarctica, the CEOs that Belk recruited to sit on the People board realized that these kids, selling "America" to hostile nations, were tailor-made emissaries for corporations with ambitions of going global [Hello, Haliburton!]. Which may explain why they kept pouring cash in to the constantly strapped organization and invited the kids to perform corporate tours before bemused factory workers.
Cynical capitalism may have supplanted ideology, but despite it all, the members really believed in the Up mission. And they were like missionaries at first, impressively integrated from the get-go with African-, Asian-, and Native-American members singing and dancing with gusto everywhere from Watts to Washington D.C. alongside bright-eyed white go-getters [like a very young Glenn Close]. Over time, Up With People moved from a missionary to a tuition-based model, and escalating costs resulted in less racial and economic diversity.
By the early 80s, reports a queeny former cast member, Up With People was a preserve for closet cases. His account drips with scorn, but it's balanced by passionate testimonies from other members, including one African-American woman who tells an amazing story of a Southern tour stop during the Freedom Riders summer. Ultimately, what's remarkable and endless engrossing about Smile is how many of the participants who appear in the doc still cite their time in the troupe as not simply life-changing but positive.
A final word of warning if you manage to see Smile [and you should]: Good luck getting those earnest, catchy, campy songs--"Which Way, America?" "What Color Is God's Skin?"-- out of your head.