Today it's hard for us to fathom why preachers used to rail so vehemently against jitterbugging. Even with cultural context — black music infiltrating white America, the revolution of rhythm over melody — the athletic, whirligig, swing-time boogie craze of the '30s and '40s now looks as wholesome as the ice-cream socials of the century before, just a lot sweatier.
The engrossing, occasionally frustrating cine-essay Teenage offers sporadic moments of thrilling revelation, chief among them this: Here was the first mass-media pop craze that truly anticipated the world we live in today, one in which the tastes of the teens began to shape the culture for the rest of us. Can't find anything fit for a grown-up mind at your cineplex? Blame Benny Goodman.
Teenage never comes out and makes an argument like that. Instead, this collage history of the very idea of teendom offers an impressionistic tour of mass adolescent experience, from skinny-dipping and record-buying to getting marched off to fight your parents' wars. Director Matt Wolf's film is based on Teenage: The Prehistory of Youth Culture: 1875 – 1945, an excellent and sweeping study by Jon Savage; the doc jumps right into the early 20th Century with clutch-your-heart photos and footage of 12-year-olds toiling in factories, the kids tough and sinewy.
Back then, the round-robin narrators tell us, childhood ended the day adulthood began. By the film's end, in 1945, the Western world has committed to the teen years as a curious buffer state to soften our entry into grown-up life, the time when each generation inherits a world it sets out to fix and each individual does what he or she can to find friends, a place in the culture, and a self. The process of fixing and finding, of course, alienates the adults, except for those who, around the 1940s, realized there were heaps of money to be made selling the clothes, toys, records, and magazines that would offer young people the chance to demonstrate their uniqueness through mass imitation of one another.
That's insidious enough; worse, in some cases, are the adults who attempt to marshal the aimless youth into movements reflective of the older generation's values. Teenage roams Europe and the U.S. as it roams the last century, and it draws a direct line from British Lt. Gen. Robert Baden-Powell's 1907 scouting movement to the earliest iterations of the Hitler Youth, who, like most kids, wanted to feel a sense of community and the chance to repair the world their parents had jacked up. As the decades roll past, grownups grow increasingly savvy about manipulating the kids — and the kids rebel all the harder.
The repetitiveness of all this is emphasized by the documentary's approach: The voiceover, generally, is written from the perspective of a collective teendom whose presence we see in wondrous vintage footage (marching at Scout camp, swooning to Frank Sinatra) or in distractingly unvintage Super 8 reenactments (walking toward or away from the camera to demonstrate the point the filmmakers are trying to make). "You took away our weapons and gave us Coca-Cola instead," we hear toward the end, while images of beaming postwar young people swan about the world they were about to build. Most of the film is like that, the voice of past generations describing generalities.
It becomes wearying on occasion, especially as it trudges through well-worked-over 20th-century documentary topics. (Yes, you will hear Roosevelt say "a day that will live in infamy.") But the old footage — newsreels, scraps of home movies — is entrancing, and even those familiar details eventually accrete with the fresh ones into something grand and stirring, especially near the conclusion. There, with that sense of both inevitability and surprise that distinguishes the best endings, Wolf demonstrates how everything that has come before in the film and the century has resulted in something like our current understanding of teendom. Watching it feels like watching the society we've all been born into take shape.
It helps that the Everyteen narration approach is occasionally suspended for excerpts from the diaries of individual kids. We meet a Hitler Youth who faces disillusionment once her camping/marching/scouting club becomes a compulsory premilitary nightmare for all German kids — perhaps the world's first case of hating that everyone else is suddenly into the thing that's yours. We meet an African-American kid in the '40s who tells us that the treatment he suffers in a segregated city "makes me so angry I can explode." And we meet 1920s British socialite Brenda Dean Paul, the original tabloid princess and a high-profile drug addict who served as an early warning for the minders of the culture that these kids were up to no good. They always are, now that we have them, have named them, and have set up a world to let them be them in. With great insight and rare sympathy, Wolf and Savage demonstrate where they came from, where they're going, and why they're going to hate it when their kids start heading there too. This would make a perfect double feature with Quadrophenia.