United States, 1993
U.S. Release Date:
PG-13 (Violence, Mature Themes)
Robert Sean Leonard, Christian Bale, Frank Whaley, Barbara Hershey, Kenneth Branagh
Jonathan Marc Feldman
Hamburg. Nazi Germany. 1939. Peter (Robert Sean Leonard), Thomas (Christian Bale), and Arvid (Frank Whaley) are three "Swing Kids" -- young rebel Germans who have fallen in love with the forbidden: American movies, British fashion, and Swing music. When the evil specter of Nazism hovers over them in the form of a seemingly-benign member of the Gestapo (Kenneth Branagh), Peter and Thomas must re-evaluate their priorities and values, and decide whether or not to take their rebellion beyond the dance floor.
Swing Kids has a multitude of problems, the most glaring of which is its loose treatment of history and the Nazis. While it's undeniable that members of the Hitler Youth and the Gestapo were goons, Swing Kids portrays them as such in a cartoonish manner. They are simply nasty, not chillingly menacing. Motivation is not a major concern, but that's usually the case with one-dimensional bad guys. The kind of mentality that sent millions of Jews to their deaths is only weakly in evidence. The need to sanitize this film to make it palatable to multiplex audiences has robbed Swing Kids of its power.
The plot lacks more than a semblance of originality. Considering the source -- Hollywood Pictures (well-known for regurgitating formula movies) -- this shouldn't be a surprise. At least the ending doesn't fall into the "happily ever after" category. In that sense, Swing Kids takes a little risk. There are several scenes of high melodrama where the film enters the realm of self-parody. While the two leads, Bale and Leonard, have been competent in previous roles, they are merely adequate here, and sometimes not even that. Barbara Hershey is completely wasted. Kenneth Branagh, in an uncredited role, is unsurprisingly one of the film's bright spots. He manages to create a sympathetic Nazi without resorting to audience manipulation.
Undoubtedly, the best part of Swing Kids are the musical numbers. Skillfully choreographed and filmed with flair, these scenes convey the life and energy of being on the dance floor when swing music represented more than just an aspect of pop culture. Nothing else in the nearly two-hour film comes close to these moments for color, style, or impact, which is a prime reason why Swing Kids is so weak.
In the final analysis, this is an unfortunate motion picture. It plays irresponsibly loose with one of the most grim periods of history for the sake of creating a movie with mass appeal. Actually, the most appealing part of Swing Kids is when the end credits finally roll and we are no longer subjected to Hollywood's diluted concept of what constitutes a "powerful" film.