In SWING KIDS, Disney's odd melodrama about teenage jazz fans in Nazi Germany, resistance to fascism comes off as a fight for the right to party. Despite energetic dance sequences and appealing leads, the film falls prey to pat psychologizing and some stunningly puerile notions of
In 1939, a vigorous teen subculture flourishes in Hamburg under the noses of the Gestapo: long-haired, zoot-suited hipsters--the Swing Kids--dance to big band jazz, openly rejecting the "Aryan" culture espoused by their archenemies, the HJ (Hitler Jugend, i.e., the Nazi Youth).
Peter (Robert Sean Leonard) has lost his father to Gestapo torturers but transcends his troubles on the dance floor. His best friends are Thomas (Christian Bale), whose devotion to swing infuriates his wealthy, autocratic dad, and Arvid (Frank Whaley), a clubfooted misfit who can't dance but
aspires to play guitar like Django Reinhardt. All three make the scene at quasi-underground jazz clubs and rumble occasionally with the HJ, for whom swing is subversive "nigger-kike music."
When Peter is caught stealing a radio, he avoids the work camps through the intercession of an avuncular Gestapo agent (an unbilled Kenneth Branagh) who has designs on his mother (Barbara Hershey). He is compelled, however, to join the HJ; out of friendship, Thomas also signs up.
While Thomas gradually succumbs to Nazi propaganda, Peter remains ambivalent and experiences a crisis of conscience when he is instructed to spy on his employer. Arvid, alienated from his friends, becomes despondent after a beating at the hands of HJ thugs. Alone in his apartment, he commits
In the wake of Arvid's death, Peter discovers the truth about his father--he was not a fool, but a hero who sacrificed everything out of love for his family. Ignoring a warning from Thomas, he dons his zoot suit and sets out for one last night of dancing. The club is raided and, as the Swing
Kids are trucked off to the camps, Peter delivers a defiant cry: "Swing Heil!"
SWING KIDS may have been nobly conceived as a way of spoonfeeding history to the kind of teenagers who can't find Germany on a map, but its transparent pandering to youth is an embarrassment. Leonard's hairdo, for instance, is not merely long in the Gene Krupa sense, but would easily pass muster
at a Soundgarden concert.
Similarly, the film baldly explains the 1930s in terms of the "Men's Movement" discourse popularized by FIELD OF DREAMS. Each of the three protagonists is disturbed by the actual or emotional absence of his father; internal conflicts can be resolved only after an epiphanous reconciliation with
dad's memory. Presumably, the Holocaust could have been avoided if the Nazis had been able to read Robert Bly. This brand of psychobabble, moreover, permits the film to skirt a number of rather delicate political realities--in particular, that Germany's most dedicated teenage resistance fighters
were not hipsters but Communists.
In one area, however, the film succeeds brilliantly: swing-era music and dance are brought to life with all the verve and eroticism that galvanized youth culture worldwide in the '30s. The big band sound is lovingly recreated in stereo; jitterbugs and Lindy Hops are expertly choreographed and
deliriously executed. Hollywood, one is reminded, is admirably equipped to produce an excellent youth movie about swing--which was, after all, the first teen craze driven by mass media. Unfortunately, SWING KIDS isn't it. (Violence.)
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- Released: 1993
- Rating: PG-13
- Review: In SWING KIDS, Disney's odd melodrama about teenage jazz fans in Nazi Germany, resistance to fascism comes off as a fight for the right to party. Despite energetic dance sequences and appealing leads, the film falls prey to pat psychologizing and some stun… (more)