An incisive slice of nostalgia
We’ve often heard it said, slightly in jest, that James Dean was America’s ‘first’ teenager. What this masterly documentary makes clear is that the teenage revolution – if such it could be called – occurred much earlier than the Fifties, the decade Dean inhabited and helped define.
According to Matt Wolf, the film’s director, it was primarily inspired by the horrors of World War Two. “The old people were responsible for the deaths of many of our contemporaries,” was the thinking, “so now we want life on our own terms”.
Because so many lives were snatched away so adventitiously, every moment, by extension, became precious, and to be snatched at. It was the beginnings of the philosophy of ‘carpe diem’, of living for the day, which probably led to much of the hedonistic excess of indulgent lifestyles in years to follow.
Beginning at the turn of the last century when young people were brutalised, overworked and regarded as fifth wheels of a society where the elderly held all the aces, Wolf takes us through the Industrial Revolution, the Great Depression, the beginnings of Nazism, the Wall Street Crash and other seismic sociological events.
These are brilliantly interspersed with footage of the burgeoning youth culture as evinced by phenomena like the ‘jitterbug’ dancing craze pioneered by blacks and the more sober manifestation of Robert Baden-Powell’s Boy Scout movement to harness adolescent energy.
He’s crafted a must-see film which uses some stupendous newsreel images to chronicle everything from the ‘Jazz Babies’ of the flapper era to a time when bobby-soxers salivated to the tunes of Frank Sinatra much in the way they would to Elvis Presley’s gyrations a generation on.
Sinatra is one of the few recognisable faces in the film and that’s what I liked most about it: it refuses to go for the easy option of featuring personalities we’ve seen all too often in these kinds of archival films.
Wolf’s judicious shots of real people, ranging from the jubilant to the devastatingly grim, encapsulate the first half of the last century so graphically we feel we’ve lived it. From the miserable faces of Hitler’s Youth, prematurely catapulted into the war effort, to the crazed ‘youthquake’ of the teddy boy subculture and the birth pangs of juvenile delinquency, this is rich stuff indeed.
Today we’re often told that youth is wasted on the young and that young people think they ‘own’ the world. Maybe some of them do. Maybe we all did when we were that age. What Wolf’s film provides by way of contrast is a stark reminder that there was a time when young people were the discarded remnants of an oligarchy that both used and abused them, seeing it as their almost divine right to indoctrinate them to their credos, be it that of Hitler’s ethnic cleansing or a mind-set that saw any form of individual expression being dangerous, nay subversive.
Wolf doesn’t deal with the ‘lost’ generation championed by people like Ernest Hemingway in the Forties or the ‘existential’ one that followed. His main brief is those who existed in the limbo of estrangement between the two world wars, searching for their identity either alone or in communities as they fought a different kind of war to any one Hitler could have envisaged: i.e. that within themselves, of self-definition.
James Dean doesn’t feature in the film and neither does Elvis Presley. By and large it concerns itself with the unsung heroes and heroines of a largely forgotten time, those who lived and died unheralded either by historians or film-makers like Wolf. He’s provided us with a short but incisive slice of nostalgia that will resonate in your mind long after you leave the cinema.