Review: With 63 Up, a Documentary Film Series Looks Back on Life

In 1964, filmmaker Michael Apted was in his early 20s and working as a researcher on a project called Seven Up!, a sort of experiment in documentary filmmaking that interviewed just over a dozen British 7-year-old students from various socioeconomic backgrounds about their lives, their families, their plans for the future. The resulting film, directed by Paul Almond, became the beginning of something quite incredible: a series of films that check in with the same group of people every seven years, to both see how they’re doing and to ask them a handful of open-ended questions about life. Apted has directed each of the eight films since Seven Up!, including the latest installment, 63 Up, which checks in with 12 subjects we’ve now watched grow up on camera for over half a century.

63 Up Tony
Image courtesy of Music Box Theatre

Individually, each film is a time capsule that captures both the era in which it was filmed and the phase of life on which it focuses. From the clothes and hairstyles to the cultural and political moods of the day, the films from 1977 (21 Up), 1991 (35 Up), 2005 (49 Up) and more are fascinating as historical records, an anthropological look at life in England in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. As it tracks the same subjects year over year, viewers watch as Andrew, Suzy, Lynn, Symon, Nick, Paul and more develop as people, forming their opinions, tastes and outlooks alongside their educations, careers and families.

Collectively—especially now, with so many of them—the Up series paints a captivating portrait of the arc of a life, from childhood through retirement, reflecting back to us the universal experience of aging and all that comes with it. By 63 Up, Apted is as aware as anyone of the scope of his project, with so many of life’s ups and down to chronicle that each of his subjects could now probably make for their own spin-off documentary (outside of the US, the film is presented as a television special, broken up into three episodes). As each is introduced this time around, Apted and editor Kim Horton weave a bit of backstory into the updated interviews, using footage from past films to remind us who each is and where they’ve been.

There are too many stories explored in 63 Up to recount them all here; suffice it to say each is interesting and endearing in its own way. There’s Tony, the working class cab driver helping to raise his granddaughter; single mother Jackie who (rightly so) pushes back when she thinks Apted is getting a bit off track; Symon and Paul, who’ve remained friends for all these years, even as Paul built a life in Australia; and Neil, the one-time homeless drifter who eventually got into local politics. The most poignant story is Lynn’s, but it’s best to go into the film without knowing exactly how she’s fared since Apted last visited.

With the perspective of time, what we’re really learning in this latest installment is if things worked out for each of them. Did they live the life they’d dreamed of? Did things turn out as they’d expected? Whether they did or not is beside the point in the end, as it is in all of our lives. The what and how begin to fade over time, things like amassing wealth or climbing a corporate ladder less important than ever as you enter the final third of your life. More than anything, each of the people featured in this long-running series points to their loved ones—their family, friends, colleagues and support system—as what’s really brought meaning to their lives. As they look back on where they’ve been over 63 years, you’ll come to appreciate not only their own lessons and experiences gained over time, but your own, too.

63 Up is now playing at Music Box Theatre.

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Lisa Trifone