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Wired, blogged and still tuned in

It’s easy to be cynical about the gloomy state of pop music today, especially when much of the news is made by knuckleheads like 50 Cent, who will hopefully follow through on his promise to retire now that his new CD failed to open at No. 1, and Britney Spears, who made a sad spectacle of herself at the MTV Video Music Awards.

Perhaps that’s why, when I asked Django Stewart about his favorite pop artists, he started rattling off icons like Patti Smith and the New York Dolls, who were stars long before he was born. The baby-faced 16-year-old, who plays a young musician in the film “All Ages Night,” already knows the score -- wanting to make cool music today has nothing to do with today’s ailing music business.

“The business is crashing,” says Stewart, who got cast after the film’s director heard his music on MySpace. “Who would want to be at a record company when there are so many other ways to be creative these days?”

Stewart is just one of the fresh faces that populate “All Ages Night,” which recently finished shooting around town, including seven nights on location at Chain Reaction, a popular Orange County all-ages rock club that caters to kids younger than 18. What fascinated me about this low, very low budget film was that it captures the Tell-All Culture of kids who live online as well as their rejection of the record industry’s outdated star-making machinery.

When I was a kid, the only technology you needed to start a band was an amplifier for your guitar. In “All Ages Night,” the guitars and amps are still on hand, but the real action revolves around a host of new media, including webcams, blogs, flash-animated comic strips and camera phones. The first time we see Dylan, Stewart’s musician character, he is tapping away on his blog with IMs chiming and a music program playing one of his songs in the corner of the computer screen.

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When the filmmakers went down to scout out Chain Reaction, they found 11-year-old boys who already had their own website with music from their band. “These kids are so far ahead of any other generation,” says Gabrielle Kelly, who wrote the script with Larry Hama and co-produced the film. “It used to be that you’d wait to be discovered by some A&R; scout. But these kids aren’t waiting. They have MySpace and YouTube to advertise themselves. The old idea of going to L.A. to be discovered is over. Now you can turn your webcam on and make it in your own bedroom.”

The story of the movie is as old as youth culture itself. A disaffected loner from London named Dylan arrives in the teen wasteland of Orange County, falling in with a bunch of scruffy guys trying to make it as indie rockers. Dylan gravitates toward Holly, another soulful outsider who’s part of the local scene. But even if the teen archetypes are the same, the story plays out in wholly different ways. Holly, played by 18-year-old Katherine Carlsberg, is just out of rehab and lives with her dad, a burned-out punk rocker whose living room doubles as the site for a 24/7 webcast.

The new technology is accompanied by a new sensibility. Everything the film’s characters do is documented, analyzed and reexamined on video or on the Web. It’s the way today’s kids deal with growing up, by exposing their inner lives. Holly keeps a sketchbook diary, assessing her moods and level of insecurity. After Dylan kisses Holly for the first time, he ponders the moment afterward on his blog, writing: “It was just a kiss, but in that kiss I might have seen, well, nothing, because for that moment I was nowhere else but connected to her.”

For these kids, connecting -- whether it’s with each other as people or with an audience as a performer -- is a fleeting thing. “These kids eyeball the world differently than we did,” says director Nancy Stein, who makes her feature debut on this film after directing an award-winning short, “Stealing Innocence.”

“Whether they’re on My- Space or using their cellphone cameras, they’re constantly exchanging multimedia during the course of the day. Stewart’s character, Dylan, is extremely shy, but he pours out his feelings and emotions in his blog. It seems crazy to us, but they feel safe in that world. What they can’t say to another human being they can say to the world on the Internet.”

For Stein, who spent more than two decades as an executive at Warner Bros. Records, music seemed the perfect vehicle to capture the intensity of kids grappling with growing up in a techno-connected world. Her friends, Kelly and Zachary Feuer, two of the film’s producers, had teenagers who’d turned them on to the all-ages club phenomenon. Stein and Kelly began driving down to Chain Reaction, where they interviewed kids and shot footage of the scene.

Stein used the film as a visual pitch, which attracted the interest of Diana Derycz-Kessler, the head of Los Angeles Film School, where Stein had learned filmmaking after leaving Warner Bros. Derycz-Kessler and her partners provided the funding for the under-$1 million production, giving Stein access to the school’s equipment and students, who make up roughly 25% of the film’s crew.

“This seemed like a great way to marry real-life production with the education process,” Derycz-Kessler said during a visit to the set. “They come to school and, boom, they’re on IMDB, working on a feature film.”

The whole set had a true DIY vibe. The cast got dessert one day when Stein shelled out $50 for treats from a neighborhood ice-cream truck. The aging punk rocker’s house, one of the film’s big locations, was Derycz-Kessler’s real-life home. When I left the set one afternoon, I saw Feuer ducking into an espresso bar. There were no assistants to run errands, so the producer was getting coffee for his director. “I know how she likes it,” he said. “With Splenda.”

Stein discovered Stewart after hearing his music on his MySpace page, where he was using the nom de plume of Johnny Vox. Stein began e-mailing, saying she wanted to meet him. When she found out he was 16, she said she couldn’t use his music without his parents’ permission. After weeks of stalling, he finally agreed to meet her at a recording studio with his dad, who turned out to be Dave Stewart of Eurythmics. (His mother is Siobhan Fahey of Bananarama.)

Taken by his combination of sweetness and teen bravado, Stein cast Stewart as the film’s loner hero, having Kelly and Hama rewrite the script to have his character reflect his real-life status as a newcomer from England. Stein also found many of the other key songs in the film from unsigned bands on My- Space.

It may still be a struggle for the film to find distribution, since studio marketers are allergic to movies about teens that don’t have a lot of broad comedy and recognizable young stars. But the kids in this film have a heady aroma that, as the song goes, smells like teen spirit. They remind me of kids I see in real life, who still look to music, yearning for an old-fashioned emotional connection. “I’m a lot like my character -- I’m still trying to find where I fit in,” Stewart explained one day between scenes. “Either you have to be exactly like everyone else or you have to be totally different. There’s no in between.” Being the self-conscious kid he is, he felt obliged to add: “And, of course, even the people who are in between are probably just posing to be different.”

The Big Picture runs each Tuesday in Calendar. If you have ideas or criticism, e-mail me at patrick.goldstein@latimes.com.


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