He’s no teenager, but British author Jon Savage has been in New York energetically promoting a new documentary Teenage based on his 2007 book on youth culture.
Like his book, Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture 1875-1945, the film is a pre-history of the modern teenage phenomenon. Through archival material, music and the voices of actors such as Ben Whishaw, it’s an elaborate montage that tells the story of young people in the first half of the 20th Century.
Teenage has the blessing of Hollywood actor Jason Schwartzman, the film’s executive producer. Schwartzman sees the documentary as resembling a dazed, dreamy experience: “If anyone got hit in the head with a brick, and they passed out, and they had a swirling, beautiful kind of involvement with a bunch of old footage with beautiful music that told the story of teenagers, that’s how I would describe my experience with it.”
But Teenage doesn’t just focus on random groups: it’s more specific. As Savage explains, “The film is about the individualists, it’s about people who stand apart from the herd, and are in a way the exceptional teenagers, people who want to make changes.”
The film features historical footage of the defiant German Swing Kids in the 1930s taking a stand against Nazi oppression. But there are many other illustrations of teen life in the U.K. and the U.S.
The film might encourage audiences to reflect on their own teen years. Jon Savage, who was born in 1953, says: “As a teenager I was very much an outsider. I was very alienated. I was a bedroom kid. I was very dreamy, And I then switched into a social and empowered person when I got involved with punk rock right at the upper end of the teenage age range.”
Quite apart from its well-researched content Teenage is an impressive feat of filmmaking for its New York-based director Matt Wolf. The documentary, although a bit scattered, quite deliberately doesn’t make use of conventional talking head interviews. Instead actors voices are combined with different images to bring us the views of young people from yesteryear in ways that make their stories unexpectedly compelling.