At just 78 minutes this film fair flies by; it sets such a glorious pace that you are whirled through the first half of the 20th century with barely time to blink before writer/director Matt Wolf grabs your hand and spins you around once more.
Using archive footage as well as his scenes he shot especially that are made to look like archive footage he tells the story of teenagers (before they were called teenagers) based on the book by Jon Savage “Teenage: The creation of youth”. Several narrators are used throughout to speak the words of characters in the first person as well as to move the footage along. The film spans the years from the turn of the 20thC up to 1945 “year zero”.
I got the opportunity to hear Matt talk about the film at an after screening Q&A session. The music score is essential to this film and indeed Matt says that all the footage is essentially silent and the soundscape was designed in its entirety. One of the things he wanted to do was make a “living collage”, rescrambling the words and footage of the past with modern music to create a work of “contemporary non-fiction”. He felt that the music score by Bradford Cox (from the band Deerhunter) was “transformative” to the old footage. Some of the stills especially even from 100 years ago look shockingly modern and youthful cool with the right music playing over it.
At first the re-created footage jars; it is very obvious and I felt a bit put out, thinking it was trying badly to fool me but I got over my hasty judgement and soon found it fascinating. Matt wanted to film these pieces to tell the hidden stories of teenagers of those times – the “absent subjects” who he couldn’t even find footage or photographs of in most cases.
The fact that he worked closely with Jon Savage who created the source material undoubtedly makes this a much more rounded experience than it might otherwise have been. Indeed when I asked him why he felt compelled to tell this story one of the things he said was that it had to be personal; it has to speak to him personally and this story did.
Matt also said that one of the things that drew him to the project was because it was difficult; he read the book and saw many many stories and thought how would this look if he tried to tell the story of the whole book; he saw 5 million problems and set himself some rules to try and solve them. He was also interested in the combination of fiction and non-fiction techniques which he could use in the same film. He didn’t know how to tell it so he had to tell it, the ultimate challenge.
One of the absurdly obvious and yet surprising things is how familiar the problems of these teenagers are today. Even though we do not have to deal with children being used as slave labour or fighting in wars in quite the same way (in the Western world at least), the dreams and hopes and ambition of the youth never changes.
The punk sensibilities of this film shine through and you would be wise to catch this when it is out on general release next year (and I’m off to buy the book).