the styles may vary, teenagers always like their music loud. However, kids between thirteen and eighteen
were not always teenagers, at least not as they are culturally and
demographically defined today. Based on
co-screenwriter Jon Savage’s book, Matt Wolf traces the development of the distinct
intermediate age group in the docu-essay Teenage, which screens as
part of the World Documentary Competition at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival.
the Progressive Era, there were children and adults. As soon as the former were big enough to
work, they became the latter. Eventually,
the unsightly spectacle of young children toiling in factories led to sweeping
reforms. Perhaps the biggest takeaway
from Teenage is the direct cause and
effect relationship between the abolition of child labor and the rise of
juvenile delinquency. Maybe we owe those
robber barons an apology.
sweeping history implies early Twentieth Century teens were rather
deterministic creatures who flocked out of hooliganism into the nascent
scouting movement, priming themselves for service in WWI. Of course, things started to change with
flappers and the Lost Generation, but maybe not so much in Germany. There, the back-to-nature youth groups could
be seen as benign forerunners of the Hitler Youth organization. Still, there were dissenters in Germany, such
as the Swing Kids who embraced jazz as the soundtrack of rebellion and social
protest, much like American jitter-buggers.
Teenage almost entirely ignores the over-hyped
post-war teenagers, including the Beatniks, hippies, and leather jacketed James
Dean pretenders. Primarily consisting of
strategically excerpted movie clips and news reels, Teenage is more about evolving images than facts and data. Periodically we hear from the diaries of four
POV teens (two boys, two girls; two Brits, two Americans; one African
American), but their words hold few revelations. Frankly, Teenage’s
more intriguing moments are the little
offhand details, such as the frolicking student film proudly bearing the name
of a young Oswald Mosley.
brought a shrewd eye to bear when assembling Teenage. Unfortunately, his
ear was off. Given the film spans the
mid 1900’s to 1945 (more or less), the music of choice for each era’s teens
would have been jazz, but most of the film’s soundtrack has a rather generic
ambient flavor. It is like Wolf did not
trust the tastes of his subjects. Occasionally,
we hear some archival Benny Goodman, but why “Sing Sing Sing” yet again, when “Flying
Home” would be more appropriate? After all,
Lionel Hampton’s pioneering stint with the nation’s most popular white swing
band represents the early cultural fruits of racial integration.
Even if it is dull listening, Teenage offers some telling visuals. While Savage’s broad strokes analysis
obviously glosses over entire years and substantial pop culture developments,
his overall framework is quite compelling. Recommended for audiences with a
taste for cerebral documentaries (and a tin ear for music), Teenage screens again tonight (4/22),
Wednesday (4/24), and Saturday (4/27) during this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.
Labels: Documentary, Jon Savage, Tribeca '13