Author Jon Savage has been steadily making his way through the 20th century’s fourth quarter, writing The Kinks: The Official Biography; England’s Dreaming, the definitive history of U.K. punk; and the essay collection Time Travel: From The Sex Pistols To Nirvana. But with Teenage: The Creation Of Youth Culture, he jumped back to the 20th century’s first half, to a time when adolescence as we now know it was thought of only as a brief way-station between childhood and adulthood. Between the first and second World Wars, popular culture discovered the teenager, a new audience whose preferences could be served and shaped without passing through the closely guarded gates of parental approval. In Matt Wolf’s documentary, which Savage helped adapt from his book, the coalescing of this newly understood demographic is broken down into representative characters like movie star Brenda Dean Paul, a member of the London social circle that became known as the Bright Young Things, and burgeoning Hitler Youth Melita Maschmann; not everyone who learned how to exploit adolescent psychology did it with good intentions. In a sense, the Teenage film isn’t a documentary so much as a séance, transporting viewers into the minds of those who, unbeknownst even to themselves, helped give birth to a world where the whims of teenage consumers leave marketing mavens quivering with a mixture of anticipation and fear.
The Dissolve: How involved were you in the making of the film?
Jon Savage: Very involved. Basically, three people really made the film. The most important person is Matt, who I worked very closely with in the early days on the concept of the movie, and then on the script, and also doing archive research. There’s Matt, then there’s me, then there’s the editor, Joe [Beshenkovsky]. The fourth most important person is the archive researcher, Rosemary Rotondi, who did a fantastic job. Matt and I thrashed out a two- or three-page document about what we wanted to do, and the film is substantially what we envisaged. The first thing we did was look at a whole lot of archive footage, because without the archive footage, we don’t have a film. Obviously, I worked very closely with him on the script, and that was, from my point of view, the hardest job. We went through about 20 different versions. Then Matt, being the director, worked out the style and the shooting of all the re-creations, then spent months in an editing suite going crazy, which is what directors do.
The Dissolve: How did you narrow down the scope of the book to the four characters who narrate the movie? Most of their quotes are from actual historical documents, aren’t they?
Savage: Yes, well, we have a formal problem in the film, which is that all the spoken archive material we found was from the point of view of adults, because youth weren’t really regarded as teenagers until the end of our film. There wasn’t an idea of an autonomous youth culture. We hardly got any actual footage of kids speaking for themselves. In order to get the dialectic between kids creating their own culture and adults trying to control them, we had to insert material that took you into the teenage state—or into the adolescent state, which it was called at that point. Matt and I came up with a process of trial and error with the idea that the commentary should be much more direct, and should not be objective. The commentary in general should have moments or passages of exposition, but basically should take you into the teenage state. If we were going to take you into that state we need to have re-creations, and eventually, after a period of trial and error and finding material, we alighted on these four characters: Brenda Dean Paul from the U.K., the party girl; Melita Maschmann in Germany, who was in the Hitler Youth; Tommie Scheel in occupied Nazi Germany, a swing kid who rebelled against the Nazis; and Warren Wall, an African-American kid in America who wanted to integrate and found himself the victim of segregation and discrimination. With Tommie Scheel, there wasn’t much on him actual firsthand, but Brenda Dean Paul and Melita Maschmann wrote books, and Warren Wall, there’s a huge, long interview in a very interesting sociological work called Negro Youth At The Crossways, which was published in 1940.
The Dissolve: You first came up with the idea that became Teenage when you were working at Granada TV in the 1980s. Was there a sense of bringing it full circle in going back to a documentary format?
Savage: This is such a convoluted story. It’s taken 34 years from the first memo I wrote to the head of features in Granada in early 1980 for the film to finally be made. After I finished the book, I didn’t want to have anything in television or film coming out at the same time. I wanted the book to stand alone. Also, I didn’t have time to work on anything while I was finishing the book; it was such an all-encompassing task. We talked to a few TV people in the U.K., and it was just really depressing. They all wanted to put their own stamp on it—you know, “Why don’t we do this? Why don’t we do that?” Because I don’t want to. Because it’s my project, and if you don’t want to do what I want to do, then you can fuck off, basically. I’ve been in the game for long enough to know what I want, and to know that if by the end of the first meeting, somebody’s actually trying to turn you over, then it’s not going to work.
Matt was the first person I met that I thought, “Oh yeah, this could work.” I was super-pleased when he contacted me, because he’s young, and I thought that would be interesting, to have a dialogue between the generations. He’s also based in New York, and I always thought the film should be made in America, because it’s an American story. We met and we got on and I realized that this could work. In the old days of television, there were feature departments, and you could get things made as a matter of course. Thirty-five years ago, when British television was different, I could have gotten this made in-house at Granada. Now, every film is an individual project. This was funded by Cinereach; the last film I did was a documentary about Joy Division, and that was completely funded by the band management. This film was completely different from the Joy Division film, which had a lot of interviewees, and in many ways, was much easier to do. This was much harder, because we made the decision very early on that we weren’t going to have any 80- or 90-year-olds talking about what it was to be young. It just wouldn’t work, so we knew we had to do something different. Matt didn’t want it to be a Ken Burns kind of documentary—I mean, I like Ken Burns documentaries, but we didn’t want that kind of thing. We wanted to make something that felt fresh.
The Dissolve: When you write a book, you’re able to rely much more on written materials, whereas a film needs moving images to thrive. Did you find things in looking through the moving-image archives that changed your perspective, or surprised you?
Savage: When Matt arrived with the 1TB hard drive of archive, we spent a weekend here looking through it, going crazy. It was super-exciting, because both Matt and I are very good with archives. I’m an absolute archive hound, because I spend a lot of time watching historical documentaries, and I hate it when things are out of place or anachronistic. I hate people who are sloppy with archives, which people usually are, I’m afraid. What was amazing to me, and was so exciting, was the process of going through and saying, “Wow, that’s an amazing shot. Let’s grab that,” the fun bit, and both being in agreement about that, and then also finding what I had written in the book actually almost word-for-word being onscreen. I thought, “I really have done my research properly,” because this actually did happen, to the extent that it was in the contemporary footage, and that was fantastic and exciting. There was a clip that we used right at the end of the Teenage Bill Of Rights that was almost word-for-word what I said in the book, and I thought, “Wow, that’s really amazing.” It was a huge confirmation for me that I’d done a good job on the book, and it also told us we have a film, which is also very pleasing, because if you don’t have the archive, you don’t have a film.
The Dissolve: It seems like movie stars like Brenda Dean Paul and Rudolph Valentino and Clara Bow played a key role in the self-definition of a teenage audience, even more than the movies they were in.
Savage: Some of it also would have come through jazz, which we didn’t really deal with as fully as we might have. It’s hinted at. Clara Bow is a fantastically interesting figure. She was absolutely huge in that film It. I read a lot of contemporary data about kids talking about movies, and It was an absolutely huge movie amongst young people in the period; from it you get the phrase “The It Girl,” which still persists. She was a wonderful, magnetic presence—she’s really well worth watching, she’s amazing. So that was fascinating. The riots at Valentino’s funeral were in my book, but then I was thrilled to find footage of it. These manifestations of kids rioting on the streets of New York are a very important part of the slow march of teenage culture. You get it in ’26 with Valentino’s death, you get it it in ’39 with the launch of The Wizard Of Oz—we couldn’t find a clip for that, strangely, but that’s in the book. Also, a few years later on, with Frank Sinatra, which is in the film and in the book. What happened with Frank Sinatra is really the thrust that gave birth to Teenage. It was one of the things that really thrust a consuming youth culture into prominence. All these things, they’re very exciting, and they look great.
My favorite bit of footage in the whole film: Matt really likes the Hamburg swings, which I think is fantastic as well, but I really like the Chicago swing jamboree from 1938: 200,000 kids going crazy, and an integrated audience, blacks and whites together, and also that black guy with the bowler hat literally pogoing his way across the screen. It’s amazing. It’s super-exciting to find that. I just thought people hadn’t really done their homework. Because everybody thinks teenagers began in the 1950s, nobody looked for footage before then that was youth culture, and there was a lot of it.
The Dissolve: In the book, you make the point that Frank Sinatra was almost designed to appeal only to teenage girls, in a way their parents simply couldn’t understand.
Savage: He had a big cock, as it happens. I’m sure that wasn’t promoted at the time. Sorry. [Laughs.] I don’t have a problem with teen pop. I’d actually much rather have One Direction than any number of boring, shit rock bands, and there are so many boring, shit rock bands at the minute, I can’t tell you. They drive me to distraction, because it’s kind of dishonest. People are trying to be something they’re not. There’s loads of awful rock bands in the States, there’s loads of awful rock bands in the U.K. There’s a current one they’re promoting, a band called Elbow, and they’re so fucking dreadful. There’s also the way it’s promoted, real music for real people, and I just think, “Oh, for God’s sake.” They’re just as constructed as a teen band, and a teen band is more honest, and probably a lot more fun. What people always forget is that pop culture, as we understand it, begins with young women going crazy at a boy band or a solo singer. That’s the way it starts. Everybody goes on about rock culture in the ’60s—which is great, which I love, which I grew up with—but The Beatles began as a boy band, and they got a lot of attention because they wrote records for teenage girls, and teenage girls screamed at them. That’s the way it all started. A lot of guys forget that, and they sneer at teen pop, but if it hadn’t been for teen pop, the kind of music they like probably wouldn’t have existed.
The Dissolve: I’ve never been able to find the exact quote, but Andrew Loog Oldham said one of the key ingredients for a pop band’s success is that “the girls have got to want to fuck them.” You’re kidding yourself if you pretend that’s not part of it.
Savage: Exactly. And Andrew Loog Oldham knows. Andrew’s views on the whole thing are so right on the ball, it’s incredible.
The Dissolve: One of the most fascinating passages in the book is the overlapping releases of Love Finds Andy Hardy and The Wizard Of Oz, which you position almost as Ground Zero for the birth of a dedicated teenage culture. Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney came to New York to promote them, and the crowds of largely teenage fans were much larger than anyone was prepared for.
Savage: At Grand Central, yeah. We couldn’t find any footage of it—it’s so annoying. Rosemary and Matt did find this amazing footage from the  World’s Fair, and Matt was going to cut it, and that’s one of the very few rows we had. I said, “No, keep it in. Over my dead body.” There’s a couple of color shots where I just swoon when I see them. It just makes you want to be there, it was so great. In my first draft of the book, that was the introduction of the whole book, the première of The Wizard Of Oz in New York in August ’39, and it didn’t work, so I put it in the back of the book. Of course, The Wizard Of Oz is such a fantastic document, and it takes you back to the book at the turn of the century. One of the things I always thought with the Teenage book was that there were three founding documents of youth at the beginning of the 20th century: Stanley Hall’s book Adolescence, which was published in 1904; Peter Pan; and The Wizard Of Oz. Peter Pan is super-creepy, and The Wizard Of Oz is this most wonderful parable about what it is to live in America, and what the American century is going to be. Of course, that was boosted by the film, as well. In Britain, for people of my generation, it was the first film we went to the cinema to see. You read the memoirs of Derek Jarman, and it’s the first film he was taken to see. It was the first film I was taken to see in a cinema, when I was about 5 years old. It’s a huge, huge film on everybody’s psyche. And it’s such a strange film. I watched it again recently. I mean, I love it, and some of it’s very scary.
That song we put in the film, “In-Between,” [from Love Finds Andy Hardy] is one of the only songs we could find. There was music aimed at teenagers, but it was classic love tunes, or “Let’s Do The Stomp” or whatever it is, dance songs or love tunes. There wasn’t actually any music that talked about the experience of being a teenager from within. That song “In-Between,” which was written by Roger Edens, is very much about what it is to be this thing between childhood and adulthood. It’s the first song we really found that reflected that.
The Dissolve: It comes across in Garland’s performance, but in the book, you explicitly draw attention to the lines about how teenagers “shouldn’t be heard, shouldn’t be seen.” It’s almost a moment of rupture; there’s real frustration, almost venom in the way she sings.
Savage: Judy Garland was completely great, and also it’s a sort of fantastically tragic story, which I don’t really go into in the book. You also have this strange construction of adolescence, this retarded adolescence, that you get with her, and all the problems with it. The age slippage that goes on around The Wizard Of Oz in general: Is Dorothy a girl, or a boy, or a child—what is she? There’s all sorts of slippage that goes on around that, which is sort of fascinating.
The Dissolve: Judy Garland wasn’t really allowed to have an adolescence of her own.
Savage: No. One of the big problems we had in the film is budget, obviously. When you’re dealing with Hollywood movies, the budget just goes crazy, but you want to hook the story into familiar sign posts, and then you want to treat them in a slightly different way. That was very much the point of the book. Anne Frank is in the book, in some detail, because she’s, if you like, the first teenager: the ür-teenager. We didn’t use her in the film because she’s such a thing. The Anne Frank Foundation are quite strict about what you can and can’t do, and Matt just thought her presence would kind of overbalance things. I think he was right. That’s one way in which the film is different to the book, as it should be.
The first contemporary music you hear in the movie is from 1938, Benny Goodman, “Sing Sing Sing.” In an early cut, we put in the Original Dixieland Jass Band [song] “[Dixie Jass Band] One Step,” and it sounded like crap in relation to the sound and picture that we were establishing in the film. It’s very crudely recorded, and there’s no tape master, it’s all off a 78, and it sounded dreadful, so we cut it out. There’s all sorts of alterations and all sorts of ways the actual material dictates what the film is.
The Dissolve: The film and the book both stop at the end of World War II, which is when “the creation of youth culture,” as you call it, really begins in earnest. You mentioned at some point that if you did a sequel it would be 1945-54. Is Rebel Without A Cause where 1954 comes from?
“Things cannot stay the same, even though you’d like them to. In a very real sense, the young teenagers do embody change, they embody the future, and they may want to change the world, because they’re going to have to live in it.”
Savage: Yeah, it all kicks in, really. I do struggle with books now, because you have to put life on hold when writing a book. One gets less prepared to do that. I’m trying to write a book, and I’m finding it really difficult, because I’m doing lots of press on Teenage, and you can’t do one and then the other. I don’t really want to talk about that too much, because I’m probably not going to do it, but that would be the thing. The original book, Teenage, was going to carry on to whenever it was I got the contract, which is the mid-’90s, but by the time I got to the end of the 1920s, I had written 150,000 words. So I got in touch with my editors and I said, “Help, what are we going to do?” It became obvious it was going to be impossible to carry the story through to the present day, because there was so much data, and I made it rougher for myself by being quite thorough. From the late ’30s-’40s on, the level of data just goes up exponentially. Also, once the mid-’50s kicks in, the story’s been told so often, what are you going to write about? As it happens, I think I could write something interesting about Elvis, but it’s hard, because there’s so much stuff. Then you get The Beatles, and again, I think I could write something about The Beatles, but Mark Lewisohn’s doing a 5,000 page book on The Beatles. What more is there to say? It just becomes very hard, and it seemed more interesting to stop the book at the end of the second World War with the atom bomb, and the creation of the teenager.
I was very influenced when I was younger by a book called Bomb Culture by Jeff Nuttall, which basically says the atom bomb changed everything. I remember watching The War Game, the film by Peter Watkins, when I was about 15, which is about an A-bomb attack on a British town, and it changed my life. I was very influenced by growing up under the nuclear threat, so I always felt that was crucial. The end of the second World War, the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki is a crucial world event; the world actually was not the same after that. That coincides with the end of the second World War, which is a major idea of political restructuring in favor of America. That’s when America became the world leader, and Britain was kind of terminally fucked, which is what punk was about, people in the U.K. saying to the older generation, “Hello, we actually lost the war.” Also, the invention of the teenager and the start of teenage marketing with Eugene Gilbert and his teenage marketing services, which is in a Time magazine in about August ’45, around the same time as they’re discussing the effect of the A-bombs on Japan.
The Dissolve: There’s a point in which you’re no longer talking about youth culture or teenage culture, and you’re just talking about culture.
Savage: It’s also what’s known and what’s unknown, really. There’s so much guff about pop culture. You look at bad pop-culture history books and bad pop films, it’s actually quite difficult to get through all that. When I made the Brian Epstein film with the BBC in the late ’90s, we had this word “cracker barrel,” where people would just turn up and they’d give the interviews they’d been giving to whatever Beatles festivals or Beatles conventions. They’d give the same old jolly tale, and we would spend half our time during that documentary trying to disrupt them so they didn’t just say the same old shit they’d been trotting out over the years. This is a problem. It’s happened with punk, it’s happened with a lot of things. I’ve seen it in myself. I’m very glad I wrote the book about punk, because my memory now has been invaded by everything that’s been written about it. It’s really quite hard to reconstruct something, because you have to deal with all the layers of subsequent history and material that’s come out since then.
The Dissolve: You have that fascinating instructional film about pregnancy in Teenage, where the father looks oddly like Rebel Without A Cause’s Jim Backus.
Savage: You’ve also got a kid in his rather smart sport jacket telling his dad to go fuck himself, because he’s earning as much money as he is and he can do what he wants, and the young sister looking kind of, “Oh dear, what’s happening?” All those public-service films are just amazing, they’re really funny. That’s why we had to have Teenage from within, because you’ve got that stupid sort of shit going on.
The Dissolve: They’re like the driver’s-ed films of the 1950s, which are rooted in this deep terror of crazy teenagers being put behind the wheels of cars and mowing people down left and right.
Savage: Human beings don’t like change, and if you think about it, life is permanent change. Things cannot stay the same, even though you’d like them to. In a very real sense, the young teenagers do embody change, they embody the future, and they may want to change the world, because they’re going to have to live in it. Adults project all sorts of things onto teenagers: If you’re pessimistic and afraid of change, you’ll see all these manifestations of kids as something that’s bad, and I get it. I’ve been asked a lot about what I think about the current passivity of youth culture, and, number one, I don’t know, because I’m not a kid anymore; I’m here in North Wales trying to write a book, so I’m not out there being down with the kids. Number two, I think it’s rather rude for adults to comment. You know, it used to be my generation that wasn’t conformist enough, and now you turn the other way, and people my age are saying, “Kids aren’t rebellious enough.” Well, it’s a stupid thing to say. It’s really unhelpful. It doesn’t mean anything. Every generation has its own task. The amount of people trying to get me to say that kids aren’t rebellious now and that’s a bad thing, it’s legion. It’s really strange. I just don’t understand, it’s really weird.
The Dissolve: What has your experience been showing Teenage to younger viewers?
Savage: This is the best thing, to me, about the film: The best reactions we’ve had are from younger people, specifically from young women: 19, 20, 21, 22. Those are a lot of the best interviews we’ve done. We’ve done very good interviews with some guys up to their early 30s. It’s a film about outsiders, and there’s a lot of guys who don’t fit into the guy mold, so I’m not writing them off at all. Both Matt and I grew up as outsiders, and we’re interested in outsiders. We’re interested in people who try and make things change. If you want a film about normal kids, then look elsewhere. This is celebrating a particular aspect of youth—not all youth, obviously. It’s celebrating the outsiders and the weird kids, which is very much to do with our temperaments and the way we see things. I was a weird kid when I was growing up, I wasn’t bullied or anything, but I was quite solitary and dreamy, and I very much went my own way, and was strong enough to do that. There’s a lot of kids like that who don’t want to go along with the usual shit, and they’re often the most interesting ones.