Openly gay filmmaker Matt Wolf’s illuminating documentary, Teenage, is a fantastic mix of found footage, still photographs, and re-enactments of individual stories. The narration—British and American boys, and American and German girls—are supplied by out actor Ben Whishaw, as well as Jessie Usher, Jena Malone and Julia Hummer, respectively.
Wolf, who wrote and directed the film, adapted gay author Jon Savage’s book, Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture, to show how teenage culture emerged over the decades pre- and post-war. One thing is common: teenagers, and youth in general aged 16-24, wanted one thing—freedom. They found it in cars, clubs, clothes, music, and even work, which empowered them.
Teenage opens in 1904, when children as young as 12 years old would work in factory jobs up to 72 hours a week. Labor laws, the film explains, soon changed that, and adolescents were suddenly free to roam out on the streets. They formed gangs and created a problem for the authorities. Youth groups like the Boy Scouts were formed to control kids, and also ready them for war. When World War I came in 1914, it decimated the young adult population.
Teens reinvented themselves as Bright Young People, and attended “Freak Parties,” where men and women would dress androgynously. They started taking drugs and soon became politicized, seeking social and political change. Teenage also chronicles the rise of Hitler Youth, as well as youth subcultures including the Swing Kids, Zoot Suiters, and “In-Betweeners.
I recently spoke, via phone, with 31-year-old Wolf about Teenage.
Gary M. Kramer: Matt, what were you like as a teenager?
Matt Wolf: Well, I was a very political teenager. I grew up in the Bay Area, and I got involved with other young people to protect gay and transgender teens in high schools. That was my whole world, the politics I was involved in.
GMK: Music is very important in Teenage. What did you listen to as a teen?
MW: A big part of my identity was music. I chose albums because of their artwork. I got into the Smiths and the Cure. I lightly identified with punk, even though I didn’t look punk on the outside.
GMK: What group of teenagers do you identify with, or would you want to belong to, if you had been a teen between 1904-1945?
MW: It depends on the decade. I think I would be a Jitterbug, because there was a political dimension to them—celebrating African American culture and integrating social spaces. And they had incredible style and verve. In the 1930s I’d be involved in politics, and I’d be fighting for a different kind of future because that’s what I did as a teen in the 1990s.
GMK: Can you talk about the Bright Young People?
I was searching for a gay youth movement. The gender play and queer material in the 1920s provides a striking resemblance to the Warhol factory era.
I felt queer teen experience was explored in this part of the film. It was hard to find gender outlaws in the early 20th
century amongst youth. I wanted to highlight that.
GMK: How did you discover Jon Savage’s book?
MW: In college, I read England’s Dreaming, his definitive history of punk, which analyzed culture in a broader way. But it wasn’t academic; it depicted a time and a place. When I heard about Teenage, I was intrigued. I also love hidden histories and stories we think we know about, but are told from a more obscure angle. We assume youth culture originated in the 1950s, with rockers and beatniks, and there was this whole pre-history.
GMK: What was your approach in adapting the book for the documentary?
MW: At first, I thought it would be narrated by Jon, and an essay-style film. But that didn’t work. Jon was older, British, and spoke with the authority of an expert. So I thought, how can we match the intensity and quality of the subject matter? I recorded some first person voices from the material. And I told the story from the point of view of youth in the United States, United Kingdom, and Germany. And the second part of the coin was that this would be a panorama, and I wanted to give emotional beats to the story to break up the march of time. John’s book is littered with obscure figures for a paragraph or pages. So I created portraits of teens who were balanced in race, class, gender, and personality—from larger than life Brenda Dean Paul and Tommie Scheel, to the Hitler Youth and Boy Scouts.
GMK: What about choosing the voice-over talent? Did you have specific actors in mind?
MW: I wanted to work with really good actors. Jena Malone did a voice over in Into the Wild, and there was a singer-ly performance quality to her. I had a mutual friend with Ben Whishaw, and his voice was incredibly cool. He brought Keats poetry to life in Bright Star.
GMK: You mix still photographs with moving pictures and recreation. What can you say about the power of the images?
MW: I worked with recreations before with Wild Combination. (Wolf’s documentary about gay musician Arthur Russell.) I wanted to bring the characters to life, but they were obscure figures, with no footage or photos. So I used this device, but in a more involved process, recreating newsreels and home movies. Jon and I set out a rule that any story we told had to have a basis in archival footage. We were surprised that we found footage of so many of the youth cultures we depicted. I always privileged moving image material, but there are such remarkable photos from these decades, that I had to honor the power of those images when I could find a purpose for them. An image of teenage flapper girls carrying guns is intoxicating. It had to find its way into the film.
© 2014 Gary M. Kramer
Gary M. Kramer is the author of “Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews,”
and the co-editor of “Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.” You can follow him on