Teenage (2013)


A teenage dream’s so hard to beat, Matt Wolf gets his Teenage kicks from all over the globe, charting the rise and fall of youth in the twentieth century.


The Inbetweeners by Mark Wilshin

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Based on the book Teenage: The Creation Of Youth 1875-1945 by Jon Savage, Matt Wolf’s documentary charts youth’s gradual path to freedom from the start of the 20th century when a wave of child labour acts all over the western world liberated minors from employment as “factory slaves” to the end of the Second World War when the ‘Teen-Age Bill Of Rights’ opened up another brave new world. With a spectrum of narrative voices from all over the world (well, the UK, Germany and the USA), both male and female, black and white, Teenage offers a global perspective on those tender years, as teenagers talk about their ambitions and responsibilities, their family relationships and of course, the newly found pleasures of youth. Looking at the decades through the lens of personal stories, Teenage brings the story of a repeatedly reincarnated generation to life, as they attempt to negotiate freedom from their parents.

A portrait of youth through the decades of the first half of the twentieth century, Matt Wolf’s Teenage unravels the gains adolescents have made from their downtrodden beginnings as child labourers. Until 1904, youngsters would pass directly from childhood into adulthood as they started their working lives at the age of 12. But then suddenly, with the abolition of child labour, a brave new world was born – of school, education and idol adolescence. With a generation of kids suddenly prowling the streets, adults devised a crackdown for fear of hooliganism – in the shape of Baden Powell’s scouting movement, instilling the youth with a loyalty for God, King and country, and neatly turning a generation of slum kids into soldiers ripe for the First World War. But with the US entry into the war in 1917 and American culture spreading through Europe, youth found a mode of expression it has clung to ever since – music. As the tunes from ole New Orleans ushered youth and the whole world into a new jazz age.

As the perennial battle between teenagers and their parents continues, with wounded soldiers returning from the front mad, shell-shocked and angry at the older generation that sent them to die, or with flappers losing their sobriety in a riot of freak parties, Teenage draws us into the secret lives of Brenda Dean Paul in the Roaring Twenties (a bright young thing with a morphine addiction) or Tommie Scheel in Germany in the grinding Thirties (a German who resisted the Nazis with American swing) through fictional reconstructions. They’re brief aesthetic interludes of slow-mo party glitter and jitterbug defiance. And while they bring depth to Wolf’s narrative, they pale in comparison to the archive treasures and their interwoven stories – from the short feature filmed by Oswald Mosley (and starring Cecil Beaton in drag) to America’s lost generation of box-car riders, heading out of the cities in search of work.

But it wasn’t all music, war and parties. These young people were swept up into politics too, like the teenage group of ramblers in Germany, the Wandervogel some of whom morphed into the Hitler Youth or the blacks in Harlem who paved the way for the civil rights movement. And while Wolf’s documentary uncovers the psychology behind these youth movements, Teenage also reveals some great forgotten moments in history, such as Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps giving work to the unemployed youth of the Great Depression, or Hitler’s March Violets turning their anger about unemployment and poverty into nationalistic fervour – conveniently once Hitler had already come to power. But revealing what it must really have felt like for the blond-haired and blue-eyed children in Nazi Germany.

Through politics and parties, and magnificent archive sequences all sewn together with a swinging musical score, Teenage leads us into a wonderland of GIs in colour, Victory girls, teen canteens, Edelweiss pirates and sub-debs. And voiced by Ben Whishaw, Jena Malone, Julia Hummer and Jessie Usher, Wolf’s documentary is an enjoyable romp through each generation of inbetweeners looking to find their place in the world. With previous credits of bio-docs getting under the skin of gay New Yorkers (musician Arthur Russell and artist Joe Brainard) Matt Wolf offers us a sensory journey through those tender years as he uncovers the universal story of youth. Like Sisyphus, it’s a battle doomed to be repeated by each generation. But armed with a Teen-Age Manifesto and with such a zest for life, Teenage feels ripe for an end-of-century sequel.

Teenage is released on 24th January 2014 in the UK

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