Film and TV

Behind the Scenes of "Smile 'Til It Hurts: The Up With People Story"

It took William Storey 15 years to tell his wife, Lee, that as a young adult, he was a member of Up With People. And when he sat her down to tell her, he was met with a blank stare.

Lee Storey had no idea what he was talking about.

Fair enough, the glossy, clean-cut singing group was in their heyday a little before Lee's time; in the late 60s and early 70s, they had worldwide tours, met with US Presidents and Spanish kings, and held a private audience with Pope John Paul II.

More than anything, they embodied a youthful idealism that US leaders wanted the world to see and associate with the country during the Vietnam and Cold wars. Sure it was sugary, but it was also pretty damn effective.

Lee Storey was fascinated by her husband's experience. The water rights attorney in Ballard Spahr's Phoenix office admits she has a history with research and interviewing, so when she decided to make a documentary about Up With People and its members, she dove in head first.

Read more about the Storeys and an upcoming screening event of Smile 'Til It Hurts after the jump ...

William Storey, like many members of Up With People, left the group as a young man with no future contact. Lee says it wasn't until group alumni started finding out where her husband lived and worked that they began sending letters, and a reunion announcement. And that's when he told Lee.

The two attended the reunion, and Lee talked to more than a few alumni (who call themselves Uppies) about their experiences with the group and their young adult lives. One of the Uppies talked about making a book, and that's when Lee says it clicked. She knew she wanted to make a documentary.

"[The Up With People story] was like an onion -- the more I dug, the more I found out," Lee says. "I would go in thinking about these crazy people, this group of cultish kids. My husband would say, 'Lee, you don't understand, when you open the door to Up with People, you can't close it -- they're well-connected, they were briefed by the State Department to calm the masses and spread the 'good word' about the country."

But Lee kept digging. She found the group's roots, born in response to the liberal counter-culture of the 60s by the ultra-conservative religious sect, Moral ReArmament. It was a group that was backed by millions of corporate and private dollars -- what Lee says is formed "when ideology, money and groupthink converge to co-opt youthful idealism." Lee ultimately discovered the group's archival footage that had been thrown into a garage, and gained the rights to the tapes to create a documentary.

Five years of reporting, interviewing and wading through nearly 1,000 hours of footage from the archives and alumni, Lee and team of documentary filmmakers are releasing Smile 'Til It Hurts.

Don't expect to hear Lee's voice or even see her face throughout the film -- she says her goal was to stay as much out of it as possible, and give the members a chance to talk about what it was like to sing around the world and carry foreign diplomacy between concerts.

"These kids were the fresh face of America," she says. "Most of them truly believed they were serving their country at the time and then some became very disillusioned later in life ... My aim with the film was to give them a chance to talk about it."

You can check out Smile 'Til It Hurts this Thursday, during a special screening events on February 17th and 18th at the Harkins Theaters on Shea Boulevard in Scottsdale. Lee Storey will be there for Q&A sessions before the film starts and after for conversation. For more information, see the documentary's blog or the event's Facebook invite
Check out the trailer of her film below ...

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Claire Lawton
Contact: Claire Lawton