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Swing Kids

Video Review By Jack Nichols

"It reminded me of my childhood during the war."
Peter King, witness to London's gay bar bombing
New York Times, May 1

swingkids6.jpg - 8.62 K Hey, sure I know Swing Kids is a '93 flick, but its on HBO, OK? And I just saw it for the first time, OK? And its tweaked my geeter, understand?…obliterating distinctions of more than a half-century's time, making the Nazi past vivid, seeing suddenly how it invades our present day.

And besides, Swing Kids really says something about the present, being a handy hanger on which to place this week's seething perceptions. Editorializing dressed up as a movie review, so to speak.

Swing Kids is a film that understands decent kids—some of the finest back then and also under similar circumstances-- like kids who turn out to be just as fine now. It sees them as individuals. Their purest passions and their teen angst through scary Nazi times comes into play somehow in this film like a classic but forgotten melody returning.

For everybody there's a second good reason to see Swing Kids: its movie sets and its cast's faces exude beauty.

Previous Entertainment Articles from the GayToday Archive:
Reviw: Seven Years in Tibet

Review: Good Will Hunting

Review: Meet Joe Black

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Peter's noble face (Robert Sean Leonard's, actually) appears suddenly in the doorway of a 1939 Hamburg dance club, a swing club, where rebellious German youths thumb their noses at Nazi true-believers, dancing to popular Americana. Dancing even to Benny Goodman (a Jew) and Duke Ellington (a Negro)— musical genres the film's Nazis call "Nigger-Kike."

The Swing Kids show their disdain for the Nazi status quo by saluting each other in public with "Swing Heil!" a salute not too different from those rebellious flares other generations sometimes send up.

One anti-Nazi rebel, a talented guitarist, believes so strongly in the meaning he derives from the music he plays that he can't conceive that a person who has loved Swing—its wild abandon-- could ever become a Nazi.

swingkids2.jpg - 8.14 K But Swing Kids is rife with a kind of lush realism. Teen friends become born-again Nazis, we discover, as they do today in the Religious Reich. Swing Kids wisely allows, in spite of the stunning musical tributes it plays, that musical tastes, which stem from such varied motivations, can be like religious fervor. Thus there can be no assurance that rapt fans will necessarily end up together singing politically harmonious songs.

Outside the boundaries of The Bismarck—their snazzy Hamburg nightclub-- you'll be privy to Swing Kids who are just earnest individualists trying somehow to fit in, to appear to be everyday good Nazis even if they scoff at the Reich by night.

Something of what life was like for minorities under the Nazis comes through effectively in Swing Kids.

swingkids3.jpg - 6.33 K Anti-Nazi crusader and long-time gay activist Bob Kunst visited me last week (April 25) arriving almost immediately after I first saw this film. I explained to him how it brought back plenty of what I still recall of the early 40s, especially its musical ambience. In the good ol' Roosevelt/Churchill years I often sat watching in the living room as my handsome uncle Graham—a Yank soldier and a regular nightclub dance prize-winner-- practiced his expert versions of the jitterbug.

The mood in those times, I told Kunst, was akin to what I'm somehow eerily sensing today. Why? Well, for starters, we're at war on European soil for the first time since the 1940s. Nineteen nearby European nations are involved. We don't yet really know where this war's going, either. Containing it is proving difficult.

Today, once again, we're already seeing bombs-across-border-spills. Ethnic cleansing is back as a pivotal pattern. Victimized refugees are pouring into the U.S. and across Europe's borders. Gays, as happened under Hitler, are again being demonized by a petty dictator.

The massacre of high school kids in Littleton has jolted contemporary complacency, with its 90s peek into mixed up semi-neo-Nazi covens. Colorado's suicide-killers, Kunst emphasizes, greatly admired Hitler.

swingkids4.jpg - 6.75 K But there's more that makes Swing Kids so relevant in May 1999—much more. How about those explosions last week of neo-Nazi bombs in London's Bangladeshi and Afro-Caribbean neighborhoods, while now—just at this very moment --there's news of another bombing. This one blew up at a London gay bar, killing 2 patrons and injuring 72. White supremacists—or neo-Nazis--are claiming full "credit."

Suddenly I'm thinking back to how—in 1964-- Photo, a mass-circulation magazine, published my first piece, a personalized account about meeting George Lincoln Rockwell, founder of the American Nazi Party.

One of Rockwell's youthful converts, in an bizarre attempt to convert me (he laughed as if he knew he was silly for trying) handed me a list of 'side-slapping' epithets he thought was just too hilarious —especially when the words "queers" and "niggers" were mixed. Yup, you guessed it, that mix created the word quiggers. These propaganda minister wanna-be's doubled over laughing at their own cleverness. I had the last laugh, however, in print.

Still, theirs was a scary political tactic: mixing homophobia with racism, thus building mine fields from fears and disgruntlement while constructing launch pads out of unbridled rage.

More déjà vu sprang up in today's New York Times (April 30) with a full-page ad (page A-21) placed by major Jewish organizations—on behalf (ironically but inspiringly) of the Muslims suffering in Kosovo. Against a backdrop photo of saddened refugees' faces, it says:

"One month after Passover, we are witnessing an exodus of biblical proportions…"

Stressing the need for donations to bolster relief efforts the ad continues:

swingkids5.jpg - 5.59 K "When the Jews of the world look into the eyes of those fleeing Kosovo, we see reflections from our own past. Fear. Death. Destruction. Flight. Wondering how lives and families will be reunited….We cannot stand idly by."

I'd mistakenly thought I was having my own private 40s déjà vu— when I discovered there were survivors of the Holocaust who were making comparisons, as I was, between today's times and those in the Hamburg of '39.

Wanting to see Swing Kids again pronto I went straight to the video store and for the second time around grooved on the story's intense drama and on the great Swing dance-scenes that allowed some goofy gawking as jitterbugging's gods got into full stride.

A final dance solo, performed by Peter affected me to the core. Its defiance was irrefutable and it showed indeed how dance is one's stance.

This film's final moments must be seen: especially to appreciate Peter's expressions of pure defiance. Even if he has no particularly clever strategies in mind, he grows anyway toward a special kind of beauty, finding he has friends, after all, in the realm of his values. His predicament—a lesson-- is what makes Swing Kids valuable fare.

Peter's defiance is rough hewn from his rocky experiences. He reminds us with sheer dramatics of our need to return to the barricades. "From any fruition of success no matter what, shall come forth something to make a greater struggle necessary," said the poet Whitman.

Such a struggle—between the social status quo and its critics-- has long been looming and now the bigot brigades have become increasingly restive. Finally—since it's too obvious we're winning—they feel they must wax violent.

Swing Kids inspires a special awareness, a proud readiness to do battle against the Nazi types of our times. Most importantly, it warns how we must stand at the ready so as not to be taken by surprise during these moments when they attack.

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