Only about just over a century ago, teenagers only existed in the sense that people between the ages of thirteen and nineteen always had existed. But back then, at some point they turned from children to adults with nothing in between. Adolescents were sent off to work in factories for as much as seventy hours a week, were sent off to fight wars and many of the girls got married and had children as soon as they were able to. We often think of “teenager” as a demographic from post World War II, something to be celebrated or alternately feared, as an age group grew into their maturity as decided that the world as it was could be changed to something more their liking. But as this film shows, the roots of this go back a little further.
Matt Wolf's documentary is based on Jon Savage's book Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture 1875-1945. Savage has had a long career as a commenter on youth issues, especially in music: I would recommend his book about the punk era, England's Dreaming. Wolf's film does not go back as far as 1875, but that's mainly because of its form, as it draws heavily on archive film footage (in colour as well as black and white), which would take it only as far back as the earliest years of the twentieth century. So the earliest images we see are silent ones. Four actors provide voiceovers derived from genuine teenage diaries of the times: the American girls and boys are read by Jena Malone and Jessie Usher respectively, the British boys by Ben Whishaw and Julia Hummer speaks for the German girls. The archive footage, accompanied by Bradford Cox's music score, was originally 8mm and 16mm, and is cropped into a wider ratio than the presumed original 4:3, but it's deceptive: some of it is recreated with actors, the new material aged and distressed so that it merges with the older film.
World War I is a turning point. The Great War provoked many social changes, and one of them was a resentment by young people about how many of them were sent out to be slaughtered by their country's establishment. Visiting soldiers from the USA brought American culture and music with them. With the twenties and a pre-Crash prosperity, a culture of Bright Young Things and parties developed. Conventions of gender and sexuality were overturned. Needless to say this horrified an older generation. The first of several emblematic teenagers are presented: Brenda Dean Paul, aged nineteen in 1928, a hard-partying participant in the London scene, who became addicted to the morphine given to her for medical reasons, possibly following a then-illegal abortion, and became London's “first junkie”. Other teenagers we see and hear from are Melita Maschmann, who was part of the Hitler Youth, Tommie Scheel, a German who rebelled against Nazi edicts banning swing music and “social dancing”. Warren Wall was a young African American who became a boy scout, and he talks about his experiences of racial issues.
There is plenty of fascinating material here, taking us up to the aftermath of World War II, before rock 'n' roll and the changes that the Sixties brought. Every generation grows up wanting to change the world, and Teenage shows how past generations went about it. Some of it is no doubt idealistic, indeed naïve, but they depict a time of life of hope and expanding horizons, which is what it should be.