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TC Doc Series: Lee Storey on Smile 'Til It Hurts

The iconic Up With People promotes happy, smiling young singers, but Lee Storey shares the personal connection that prompted her to uncover the founders' real agenda. See it at TC Doc Series on Monday, May 24!

 Smile 'Til It Hurts: The Up With People Story


Smile 'Til It Hurts: The Up With People Story is director Lee Storey's début feature documentary. After 15 years of marriage, she learned that her African-American husband was secretly a former member of Up With People in the 1960s, so curiosity reigned and she was compelled to begin her journey into filmmaking. Lee is an experienced attorney practicing law in Phoenix, Arizona. Smile 'Til It Hurts: The Up With People Story will screen as part of the Tribeca Cinemas Doc Series on May 24. Please describe the story you tell in your film.


Lee Storey: Smile 'Til It Hurts: The Up With People Story explores the clean-cut, smile-drenched singing phenomenon Up With People. The group was born in response to the counter-culture of the '60s, spun from the controversial maneuverings of a religious sect called Moral Re-Armament, backed by millions of corporate dollars, and launched around the globe to exemplify conservative American values. Told by former "Uppies" whose compelling stories take us on an intimate journey, the film reveals what happens when ideology, money and groupthink converge to co-opt youthful idealism. Can you tell us a little more about Up With People?
LS: Remember the upbeat UWP Superbowl half time shows in the 1980s? Even John Cusack marked the '80s with cringing memories of UWP performing at the Superbowl. Although rooted in conservative American ideology, UWP became a pop culture joke and is parodied on American Idol, Glee, South Park, The Simpsons, and the David Letterman and Bill Maher shows. The smiley singing troop has captured the happy imagination of American culture from its inception as a counter to the hippie culture of the 1960s, and grew to inculcate 20,000 alumni on a mission that carried them to sing before millions in 3600 communities worldwide. This summer marks the 45th reunion of UWP in Tucson, Arizona, where thousands of alumni will gather to, well, sing!


Although the organization folded in 2000 from a mismanaged annual budget of $32 million, UWP started up again in 2005 and continues to perform today. For $14,250, kids can take a 6-month clean-cut tour with UWP, which now has a greater focus on community service. What inspired you to tell this story?


LS: I never intended to be a filmmaker. I'm a full-time water rights attorney in Phoenix, Arizona; making a documentary was never on my mind. But I learned after 15 years of marriage that my husband was keeping a secret: He was a former member of both the pop culture singing group Up With People and its founder, Moral Re-Armament. He would talk about traveling around the world and meeting the Pope and heads of state, but I found it difficult to believe that a black man in the 1960s could have done all the things he said he did. After all, I never saw any photos or news clips from his travels, and there were never any phone calls from the alleged life-long friends of his past.


So I set out on a mission to uncover his story. I've been shocked and amazed ever since in learning about the cheery propaganda, corporate funding, political agenda, stringent standards, arranged marriages, sexual politics, and broken families of these singing "true believers" who set out to change the world. Smile ‘Til It Hurts simply became a story that had to be told.


Even though he had nothing to do with the making of Smile 'Til It Hurts, finding out about my husband's past was certainly an eye-opening part of the adventure, especially uncovering his taped speeches on race and character. But what kept me digging was the odd juxtaposition of the seemingly cheesy archival footage with the surprising authentic stories of idealistic youth and the organization's unique mission to counter the counter-culture of the 1960s. Every discovery added another layer I couldn't ignore.
TC Doc Series: Lee Storey on Smile 'Til It Hurts What do you want people to take away from the film?

LS: For me, the surprise is witnessing the range of emotions from unabashed laughter, to singing, to tearing up at poignant moments, or as a welcome relief from political ideologies and the dynamics of a "groupthink" mentality. What's unexpected is the conversation that Smile ‘Til It Hurts elicits even days after a screening—the sobering reflection of who we are as Americans and what message we sell to the world, our choices as idealistic youth, a sense of compassion and healing, and the comments on the corporate and political agendas being repeated in the world today. Making documentaries is not an easy road. What was the biggest challenge in getting your film made? How did you overcome it?


LS: For a first-time filmmaker, there was nothing but challenges!!! It was a completely new language for me, and I ran a technical marathon in combing through 40 years of never-before-seen archival footage in all formats. Getting inside the tightly knit inner circle of Up With People was another challenge. We attended annual reunions held in Tucson. The energy at an Uppie reunion is like an Amway convention on steroids. It was also the Borg: resistance was futile, and our crew had to assimilate or die.


But because I was an outsider who never traveled in Up With People or Moral Re-Armament, members were willing to share their stories with me, and many were relieved to discuss their experiences after decades of silence. I also had to learn to hunt to get an open interview with J. Blanton Belk, the founder of Up With People. It was a "mano y mano" experience—although he was definitely the sharpshooter, not I.


I started out just videotaping personal stories, not knowing the "story" of Smile 'Til It Hurts. While one would anticipate that cast members' experiences would be different over the decades, recurring themes continued to surface. The challenge was choosing from so many unique characters and weaving their personal stories in with the corporate agenda and archival footage over decades. I think you have to go with your gut and hope that the feelings and expressions of life's adventures resonate with your audiences.   


And most of all, a doc like this would never be successful without a great team. I was fortunate to have the brilliant producer Bari Pearlman at my side, along with our think tank executive producer, Jack Lechner. It also took a stellar crew to make the energy of Smile 'Til It Hurts "pop," with a thoughtful editor Penelope Falk, assisted by Aimee Lyde, and a fantastic cameraman, Ezra Bookstein

Watch the trailer: What's up next for you as a director?
LS: Although I appeared as the "water expert" in rock star Maynard Keenan's documentary film, Blood Into Wine, I prefer being behind the camera! I'm considering a couple of fascinating stories in Arizona, one on the eerie "Wives of Scottsdale," who, along with their daughters, visit the same plastic surgeon; and a troubling story of passion, murder and religious conflict between a rural Mormon community and an Indian tribe in Arizona. What do you currently find most inspiring in today's film world?
LS: Movies have the ability to inform and inspire people to action. I am inspired by the number of valiant documentary filmmakers who care enough to bring critical issues to the general public. I am equally inspired by general audiences that are willing to listen and take action to address the pressing issues of our times.


Monday, May 24, 2010
7:30 pm

Director Lee Storey and Producer Bari Pearlman will be in attendance for a post-screening Q&A.
The Tribeca Cinemas bar will be open before and after the screening—stop in for a drink and mingle with other movie lovers.



Learn more about the film on its official website.


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