A fascinating footnote of Second World War Nazi Germany is trivialized and sanitized in Hollywood Pictures’ odd concoction of music and politics known as “Swing Kids.” Apart from its appealing young cast and period score, it has precious little to entice audiences into movie theaters.
It will probably replicate the commercial performance of the company’s near-catastrophic “Newsies.”
Chronicling the development of a trio of young men whose passion for such American pop music favorites as Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and Count Basie puts them in the unusual dilemma of embracing officially forbidden decadent art, the film fumbles a wild attempt to create a span between the poles of free expression and totalitarian rule.
Jonathan Marc Feldman’s screenplay plays fast and loose with historical fact and chronology as it details how the tide of events leading up to war forces each member of the trio to reveal his true nature.
However, it is Peter’s (Robert Sean Leonard) situation that provides the narrative line.
The son of a renowned musician who was discredited and died in a workcamp, his family lives under a cloud of suspicion.
It is only relieved by the intervention of a seemingly generous SS official (an uncredited Kenneth Branagh) who has romantic intentions for Peter’s mother (Barbara Hershey).
The more upwardly mobile Thomas (Christian Bale) finds his musical ardor dampened after he joins the Hitler Youth. Initially, he signs up to pal around with Peter (who must join after committing a petty crime), but soon his resistance gives way to total conformity.
The third, the physically crippled Arvid (Frank Whaley), remains unrepentant. The least capable of standing up against the tide, he is ironically the fiercest in devotion to the jazz boppers.
A latter-day “Three Comrades,” the film cannot find the right note of contemporary resonance. This is only partially the fault of setting the action on the war’s eve, long after jazz was banned in Germany.
The problem is that its leitmotif of rebellion rings hollow. Far more interesting, but secondary, is the sometimes effective manner it presents the insidious, intoxicating aspects of Nazi conformity.
Director Thomas Carter, making his big screen debut after a distinguished television career, aptly demonstrates his command for the medium without investing a scintilla of appreciation for the story.