The last shot of Matt Wolf’s Teenage, a film inspired by Jon Savage’s book of the same name, is of two English Ladies staring at a group of female rockers ambling along a town’s high street somewhere in Middle England. Their stares are not born out of envy or incomprehension, but more apprehension- although my interpretation is influenced by the fact we now live in a world where youth styles are a huge selling point- once it made us Cool Britannia- around about the same time Jon Savage’s book was published in 2007, and now it makes us Broke Britannia.
But Matt Wolf’s film is very much ‘the kids are alright’, an ambitious documentary project which aims, with archive footage, to chart the history of the birth and development of the Teenager from somewhere within the industrial revolution up to the point of the 1950s. Focusing mainly on the US, UK and Germany, it traces the cultural movements and youth groups that grew out of a ban on child labor and the emerging ‘in between’ age, adolescence. From flappers, to jitterbugs, to the Nazi Youth and the frenzied sub-debs, we are fed graphic portrayals of real teenagers- Brenda Dean Paul, a destructive Bright Young Thing, Tommie Scheel, a rebellious German Swing kid, eventually imprisoned for his views by the Gestapo. Beautifully crafted, peppered with impressive quotes from historical academics [‘Adolescence is a new birth’ G Stanley Hall], Teenage is a Julien Temple esque symphony that stops short of explaining how yesteryear’s adolescent has given birth to today’s.
Yes, it’s fascinating to learn how the term and concept Teenage came into being [though Savage’s script neglects to explore how ideas about teenagers were actually fed by the writings of Goethe and Rousseau] but for my taste, the idea that the authorities attempted to control, liberate and thus exploit rebellious youth, is presented a little too glibly- we move very quickly from an exposition detailing the various idyllic youth and peace groups and conversation corps to these same groups being mobilised by the authorities and fed into the armies of the world wars, the second in particular. It is true that the Nazis presented Hitler Youth as a product of youthful discontent with the Weimar Republic, but the film needs much more anecdotal and historical reference to make the argument more convincing. The film would also have us believe that every teenager was a jitterbug, flapper, member of the Kittelback Pirates, The Kindred of Kibbo Kift or the Woodcraft Folk.
However this omission of what the more obedient or poorer teenagers were up to begs two questions- what happens to you if you can’t buy into this upper-middle class vision of youth culture? [especially American] – a question which again Savage raises in the book but omits in the film- and, where is there a discussion about the African-American ideas lying behind much of the US youth culture and the exploitation surrounding it?
No time is given either to the idea that pleasure and its pursuit was once a more relatively free commodity but which has now, over the last century or so, become ever increasingly synonymous with social acceptance / inclusion and purchasing power. Several commentators have already written that ‘Teenage is a story that ends with a beginning- a prelude to today’s youth culture.’ If this is the prelude then let’s please have the first act and an investigation into the modern teenager and how the commercialisation of the adolescent has perhaps prepared the way for the way we live now.
I heartily recommend everyone to watch this film – and then to read the book. If anything, you’ll see we are all teenagers and living in a teenage world now more so than ever.