As a society we love to look back through history but while the past is a vast and multi-faceted tapestry we tend tirelessly explore the same themes. Teenage takes a different look at the roots of modern adolescence revealing what has changed, what has remained the same and what we need to avoid returning to.
Journalist, filmmaker and cultural commentator Jon Savage has, with the help of American filmmaker Matt Wolfe made his critically acclaimed book, 'Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture' into a film. The film explores adolescence from 1904-45 with narrated sections from the UK, the US and Germany.
Teenage uses archive footage alongside narrated stories of real young people of the time, the film explores the birth of the modern teenager as well as early subcultures like the Bright Young Things and the Swing movement in the United States. The film also explores what life was like for teenagers under the Nazis.
This caring and well thought out and enlightening documentary celebrates young people and offers and throws an interesting light on how young people live today.
In UK cinemas now, and opens in US theaters 14 March
What made you embark on writing Teenagers?
I started work on this in 1980 when I was asked by Granada television, for whom I then worked and at that time asked me to prepare and start making a series about the history of youth culture. Which at that time was based on Dick Hedley's book, 'Subcultures' but it also drew on my own experiences.
In 1976 and 1977 when I went to see punk rock groups and saw the audience dressing in various historical youth styles from the 40's, 50's and 60's all at once and so I realised there was a pop culture past and people were making art out of it, and I started to research it.
I kept on researching and thinking about the topic and a big change in my thinking came when I found G. Stanley Hall's book Adolescence which went back to 1904. I then realised the story went back way beyond the Second World War and the fifties. That helped me to conceptualise the book, which runs from the last quarter of the nineteenth century to 1945 to the end of the Second World War, the word teenage passes into general use in America that was winter '44.
Once you had put the book together and it had been well received etc, how did you decide on how you would transfer Teenage onto film?
I have made several films including one with Arena 'The Brian Epstein Story' and another, and the documentary 'Joy Division'.
I had worked in T.V. on and off since the late 70's anyway so I knew I wanted to turn it into a television series or a film. So it was a question of finding the right person and we kissed a few frogs before we found our prince. And that was Matt (Wolfe) and when Matt got in touch with me I was very pleased number one because he was young and number two he was keen and he got the idea number three he was based in New York and I wanted it to actually be made in America because it's an American story.
We had a mad weekend here in Wales, where I live, where we watched 70 hours of archive but by the end of it we realised we had a film. It's just a question of what you do in between the bits of archive (footage), we knew that we didn't want a single overall narrator so it was jut a question of problem solving, so we got the idea of having a lot of the script being a direct address from the point of view of teenagers. Then Matt had the idea of doing these dramatisations and it was really a question of finding people who fit what we wanted... Particularly in the reconstructions we used quotes from diaries or press reports at the time, so we wanted that direct feeling.
For me, there seems to be a much wider telling of histories, why do you think it is that certain stories from the past get so much more attention than others?
I don't know really, I suppose this is all new stuff, all the stuff for 'Teenage' and the stuff we included in 'Teenage' is all pretty much new stuff, people haven't seen it before.
I think people need to do their research, it's just finding an interesting story and hoping it will speak to people today. When you are reading historical material, for instance one of the first characters in the book is Marie Bashirtseff who is a young, Russian émigré in Nice in the 1870's the journals were published in the late 1880's after she died young. In retrospect they are regarded as one of the first great teenage books that tell you what adolescence is like from within.
The books very interesting to read but a lot of its very boring but then she says, "I am bored, I hate my mother, I want to be famous." And you think, well that could be said by somebody now! And that's what interesting and that's what you look for, how these stories transcend time.
There is such bad feeling in the media towards teenagers and young people but your film has so much warmth in it, is 'Teenage' a reaction to that?
Part of it is Matt and I being Romantic about teenagers. And in some ways we feel as though the 'kids are alright'. Obviously Matt's 31 and I'm 60 so there is a big difference in our ages so we really had to communicate and cross generational communication is very important because we wanted to reach as many people as possible.
I've written about it in the Guardian recently, I certainly do think that today's kids have got a raw deal and I think that part, the problem is that, well if you look at the statistics more than 1/3 35% of all 16-17 year olds are unemployed 18% of all 16-24s are unemployed. Now that's a massive failure to invest in and value youth. The youth are the future so if you don't invest in them you are simply saying that you don't have a future.
And I also think, people say, "kids are only interested in getting famous, that's the classical one," Well, not the ones I meet, the ones I meet are super motivated.
Do you think that there has been a death of subculture?
Well, it's a lot les visible, I think what's happened is that a concerted political and economic attack on the status of youth such as occurred in the 1960's, there were real advances for young people in their culture, a very creative culture and a wonderful period of what you could call "mass art".
I remember, during the 80's Tory ministers were queuing up to take chunks out of how awful the 60's were. It was and is an ideological attack.
It's a very powerful moment when you are coming out into the world and young people don't realise this. When you are coming out world when they are 16, or when they are coming into the world after school or tertiary education and you are 20-21 you see the world very clearly as it is, you don't remember how it was, you're too young, this is your reality and it's happening now and you've got the energy to do something about it. You can see what's wrong with society and maybe you'd like to make it better. That's a very powerful moment I think and if you don't have change then you have entropy and decay.