There’s no James Dean or Elvis in Teenage, Matt Wolf’s documentary about the history of that class of humans who are not kids and not quite adults. Though controversial hip-gyration may be what most people think of as the beginning of teen culture, the idea of the teenager is much older.
It’s that pre-history that sparked Wolf’s interest.
“I was intrigued by the premise that teenagers weren’t born in the 1950s as the kind of rockers and beatniks that we already know,” he told BuzzFeed. In particular, he was drawn to the book Teenage by Jon Savage, which begins in the late 19th century and ends in 1945.
“The common view of the teenager is that it begins in ‘54, ‘55, with James Dean, Elvis, and Bill Haley,” Savage said. “It’s very familiar to people. And then as you go on to the ’60s and ’70s, the history of pop culture is very familiar and almost overdone.”
“I decided to stop the book in 1945 — which the film does as well; the film ends in 1945, because number one, the invention of the teenager in the winter of ‘44, ‘45,” Savage said. “Number two was the end of the second world war, which was a defining geopolitical event under which we still live.”
The pre–rock ‘n’ roll teenagers the film focuses on were responsible for filling the gap created when child labor was outlawed. Forced to find a new identity between childhood and adulthood, they created a culture that continues to influence us nearly a century later.
Contrast a 13-year-old crying over not being able to snag Bieber tickets with a 13-year-old working 70-hour weeks in a coal mine. By providing the late-19th-century context, Teenage gives a much clearer sense of where that need for rebellion originated. (It also made my high school concerns feel all the more petty.)
Savage said he wrote the book Teenage as a “living collage,” piecing together archival materials and first-person narratives. The term comes from Savage’s punk rock studies: He observed that styles in the ’70s and ’80s appropriated clothing from previous eras, holding it all together with safety pins.
According to Wolf, that “living collage” concept became “a recipe for the filmmaking” when adapting Savage’s book to the screen.
“We take all these quotes from teenagers, these voices, these clips and images of youth from previous eras, and we reassemble them into this film that is meant to make you think about youth and youth culture in a fresh and new way,” he said. “That became a kind of philosophy for the filmmaking.”
It actually works. Teenage is a largely visual experience. It helps that the source material was so image-heavy: Savage has a background in filmmaking, and he does all his own photo research for his books. In translating that to film, the narration carries the viewer along, but it’s the seamless editing of Teenage’s distinct parts that commands attention.
The “living collage” philosophy is what attracted producers, including executive producer Jason Schwartzman, who said his interest in Teenage began as him being a fan of Wolf’s and Savage’s work.
And the more he heard Wolf talk about Teenage, the more he wanted to get involved.
“The style Matt was talking about making it, which was using archival footage and kind of interweaving recreated scenes that he would shoot that would be in the style of the clips of the archival footage, was totally interesting to me, ” Schwartzman said. “That’s something I instantly wanted to see.”
Without using actual safety pins, Teenage’s writers pieced everything together to tell their story, sometimes without regard to the original context. Wolf recalled one notable example from the editing process.
“We found a 1920s educational public health film about syphilis, and it featured everyday portraits of adolescents from that time period,” he said. “We saw a boy slicking his hair back, and he was doing his hair to look just like Rudolph Valentino … We juxtaposed that image with a shot of Valentino and it totally transforms that, but the original footage was a syphilis PSA.”
The audience gets a clear sense of what it meant to be a “sheik” in the ’20s — but without the warnings about unprotected sex.
Rather than using the conventional voice-over narration that most historical documentaries employ, Wolf and his collaborators decided to use four different narrators to read from the journals and letters that were adapted into Teenage’s script. The story lines take place in America, England, and Germany, so the filmmakers chose an international cast.
“It helps us orient the viewer as we jump between these three different regions across different time periods,” Wolf said. “Each speaker kind of frames their experience from their particular country and time, but when they speak together they kind of form this universal voice of youth.”
The American flapper is surely more relatable for most of us than the German member of the Hitler Youth, but the teenagers themselves are reacting to the same challenges: how to find their own identities, how to ease into adulthood, and how to rebel against their parents. As a Jewish man, I’ll concede the difficulty of relating to a young Nazi; Teenage does a good job of giving the context without condoning the movement, and the effect is powerful.
What we’re left with is a portrait of the teenager that goes against the common conception — Snapchat and Tumbling Jennifer Lawrence GIFs — or even the more classic idea of Beatlemania. It’s someone we know and someone we don’t: a completely new character based on some of our most familiar tropes.
Before joining the film, Schwartzman said he had the same oversimplified view of the teenager that we’ve seen for decades.
“My knowledge was more like one’s average knowledge of teenagers, through the lens of music and pop culture,” he said. What he liked was the way Teenage delved deeper. “Matt always talks about hidden histories, and I think that was a really exciting thing for me about the movie.”
By focusing on the decades before the end of World War II, Teenage is actually a more original look at the culture. Ironically, by going further back in time, “it feels very fresh,” as Savage put it.
Regardless of the time period, however, much about the teenager stays the same. That goes beyond the style, although Wolf admits he would like to see jitterbug fashion make a comeback. (Looking at you, Urban Outfitters.) There’s a timeless quality to being a young adult — and looking at these people through a different lens helps illuminate those similarities.
“I think every generation has its battles and has its struggles in a particular moment, and some of the themes are constant,” Wolf said. “[Teenagers] represent the future, and I think that’s why adults try to project their hopes and fears onto them, and it’s also why they try to control them. Young people are always just trying to create their own lives.”