MOVIE REVIEW : ‘Swing Kids’: Lively Music, but Far Too Many Missteps
The creators of “Swing Kids” (countywide) must have thought they’d died and gone to heaven when they got the inspiration for this film. Having run out of domestic situations to place photogenic young people in, here was a chance to do a coming-of-age movie against the backdrop of the rise of Nazism in Germany with some lively music thrown into the mix. What could possibly be better?
The answer, unfortunately, is just about anything. For, except for that music and a bit of the acting, “Swing Kids” is unsatisfactory from just about every point of view. Awkward, hollow and emotionally heavy-handed, it transports a sea of movie cliches onto those unfamiliar German shores. The fact that the filmmakers seem to think they’re dealing honestly with this nightmare period in history only makes what they’ve done that much more depressing.
Certainly the subject matter of the PG-13 “Swing Kids” is intriguing. For while sentiment for Hitler was rising in Germany in the 1930s, so, apparently, was passion for swing music among a free-thinking segment of that country’s youth. Apolitical but nonconforming, passionate about jitterbug dancing and unwilling to join the Hitler Youth, these long-haired kids were by definition an affront to the strident conformity of an increasingly rigid society.
And when “Swing Kids” cuts to the melody, it is hard to complain. As choreographed by Otis Sallid, the film’s dancing is lively and energizing, an unfortunate contrast to the pall that overtakes things when the music stops.
At first the problems seem small enough. The swing kids the film focuses on, for instance, look more like they grew up in Reseda than Hamburg. And their accents are so various that any sense of things really taking place in Germany is lost.
More crucially, the plot, as it follows the path of a trio of close pals, becomes much less original than the setting. Peter (“Dead Poets Society’s” gracefully sympathetic Robert Sean Leonard) is your basic good kid with a worried mother (Barbara Hershey) and the legacy of a father who resisted the state. Thomas (Christian Bale) is the spoiled son of wealthy parents, while Arvid, a.k.a. Hitman (Frank Whaley), is the truest hipster even though he walks with a limp.
“Swing Kids” attempts to show what happens as these kids are forced to deal with the increasing power of a political party that considers the makers of jazz subhuman or worse. Not a bad idea, but in the hands of screenwriter Jonathan Marc Feldman and director Thomas Carter, every dramatic moment is either miscalculated, overdone or both, as the film finds it increasingly hard to resist bludgeoning the audience with its sensitivity.
The one exception to all of this is Kenneth Branagh, who chose not to take screen credit for his role as Gestapo Major Knopp, a devoted Nazi who takes an interest in both Peter and his mother. Though the part is a subsidiary one, Branagh outdoes the rest of the cast without even trying, illuminating even in his brief moments on screen how the Nazi movement could have an appeal to someone of sensitivity and taste. But the pleasure of watching Branagh work must be a mixed one, because it underscores how far from his subtlety of attack everything else in this film turns out to be.
‘Swing Kids’ Robert Sean Leonard: Peter Christian Bale: Thomas Frank Whaley: Arvid Barbara Hershey: Frau Muller Tushka Bergen: Evey
A John Bard Manulis/Mark Gordon production, in association with Touchwood Pacific Partners I, released by Hollywood Pictures. Director Thomas Carter. Producers Mark Gordon, John Bard Manulis. Executive producers Frank Marshall, Christopher Meledandri. Screenplay Jonathan Marc Feldman. Cinematographer Jerzy Zielinski. Editor Michael R. Miller. Costumes Jenny Beavan. Music James Horner. Production design Allan Cameron. Art directors Steve Spence, Tony Reading. Set decorator Ros Shingleton. Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes.
MPAA-rated PG-13 (violence and some language).