From Boy Scouts and jitterbuggers to rock ’n’ rollers, documentary “Teenager” looks at adolescents through the decades.
With Richard Linklater’s long-gestating “Boyhood” finally coming into its own as a new American classic, the time is right for the video-on-demand release of “Teenage,” an aptly awkward and earnest documentary that traces the origins of the adolescent as a figure of pop-cultural magnitude.
Following a blink-and-you-missed-it theatrical run in May, “Teenage” is now available for streaming on Amazon Instant Video, iTunes and the like.
Few viewers of any age would consider this a conventional doc. Working with a script by British rock writer Jon Savage, director Matt Wolf mixes archival footage and re-enactments to chart the growth spurts of the teenager throughout the first half of the 20th century. Actors including Jena Malone narrate from the perspective of the proverbial teen spirit, articulating how “we” as adolescents have sought over the years to earn both respect and distance from grownups, many of them bent on exploiting children in one way or another.
Focusing on embryonic youth movements in Britain, Germany and the United States, “Teenage” begins in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, as kids in large numbers were made into de facto slave laborers (and made to want payback, karmically speaking). Evidently the Boy Scouts was instituted to keep rebellious kids in line as well as prep them for war, whose toll proved devastating enough to trigger a worldwide surge in breeding.
The film finds its rhythm when documenting the jitterbug craze of the ’30s and ’40s, and climaxes with the end of World War II, a big bang that birthed the modern, doom-laden teen condition as we know it. By 1945, a lucrative system was in place to let adolescents buy their identities through clothes, magazines and especially records. “Teenage” makes plain that those high-pitched screams generated by Frank Sinatra and his label are still reverberating almost 70 years later.
Also notable on VOD
Among the first Hollywood movies to recognize and court the new teen army, 1955’s “Blackboard Jungle” pales beside Nicholas Ray’s “Rebel Without a Cause” in both style and reputation. Still, it beat “Rebel” to theaters by seven months, and its influence on what would come to be known as the youth movie is incalculable.
Set at a troubled high school in an unnamed urban city, “Blackboard Jungle” (available in HD on iTunes and Amazon) is also worth remembering for being the most savage of early mean-teen melodramas. Besides smoking and swearing, the kids (all male, for some reason) smash records, tip cars, draw switchblades and, in a scene that remains shocking to this day, attempt to assault a librarian during school.
Although a young Sidney Poitier makes a strong impression in one of his first roles, the film’s hero is Mr. Dadier (Glenn Ford) — or “Daddy-O” to the kids. An English teacher and clumsy moral authority, Dadier struggles to man up and lay down the law, even as the pitiless punks beat the hell out of him and threaten his pregnant wife (Anne Francis).
Given the infancy of the youth movie, it’s not surprising to find the message of “Blackboard Jungle” to be absurdly naive. But no happy ending could diminish the sense that the kids are chipping away at the old man. Soon enough, Ray’s “Rebel” would pledge the genre’s allegiance to the youth and leave Daddy-O in the dust.
Send questions or comments to Rob Nelson at VODcolumn@gmail.com.