Smile ’Til It Hurts
A Behind the Music-like look at the perpetually perky, ideologically-motivated singing phenomenon Up With People.
Before there were yuppies, there were uppies—the term Up With People members use to refer to themselves. Most Americans over the age of 35 are vaguely familiar with Up With People, as its cast members have sung to more than 20 million people worldwide, and at the height of the ensemble’s fame it provided the halftime entertainment at four Super Bowls (1976, 1980, ’82, ’86). But many are unaware of the group’s cultish utopian ideology, its political connectedness, and how it was funded by corporate America, part of a deliberate propaganda effort to discredit liberal counterculture in the 1960s and ’70s. In the documentary Smile ’Til It Hurts: The Up With People Story (Storey Vision), writer-director-producer Lee Storey provides a thorough, balanced look at the organization’s history, demonstrating “what can happen when ideology, money and groupthink converge to co-opt youthful idealism.”
According to Storey, who practices water law in Phoenix and made the film in her spare time, she got the idea to begin documenting the history of Up With People after discovering that her husband, William Storey, had been a spokesperson. “We were married for 15 years before he told anyone [he had been a member]. It was a part of his life he never wanted to talk about,” she begins, hinting at William’s sense of unease about the group’s hidden agenda, which was cloaked under its shiny, fresh-faced exterior. “My husband—who had no involvement with the making of Smile, and was the last person interviewed for the film—says Up With People was a valuable experience and wouldn’t trade it for the world. He just feels bad that he wasn’t expressing the truth about its ideological stance,” she concludes.
Up With People emerged from the controversial religious movement Moral Re-Armament (MRA)—a cult-like organization that preached honesty, purity, unselfishness and love—so it’s no surprise that the groups bore more than a passing similarity. In fact, Up With People founder J. Blanton Belk was heir apparent to Peter D. Howard, a British journalist who succeeded Frank Buchman as MRA’s leader in 1961. But Belk broke away to incorporate Up With People as a non-profit after President Dwight Eisenhower urged him to distance himself from the dreary image of MRA.