(Welcome to Nostalgia Bomb, a series where we take a look back on beloved childhood favorites and discern whether or not they’re actually any good. In this edition: a look back at Swing Kids, the early ’90s drama about dancing in the face of Nazism starring a young Christian Bale).

For about three months in 1998, everyone got into swing music.

The Brian Setzer Orchestra, Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, Royal Crown Revue. The big band sound was suddenly everywhere after creeping into the public eye through the early ’90s.

RCR featured prominently in The Mask in 1994 as the flashy backing band for Cameron Diaz’s character’s dance numbers. Then Big Bad Voodoo Daddy was in Swingers. Then Brian Setzer, 1980s savior of rockabilly, had a hit covering the Louis Prima song “Jump, Jive an’ Wail” in 1998 (it won a Grammy!) and the nation had a reached a fever pitch culminating in Old Navy cashing in on the trend.

I dove in greased-up head first. That was also my freshman year of high school, and I was invested in a full reinvention of the middle school me, which meant shunning drama for band. Over the next four years, I’d play in the pit (I never figured out why we needed a xylophone on a football field), march quads, and play vibraphone, then guitar, then piano, then trap set in our jazz band.

I played upright bass in a touring rockabilly band, wore terrible silk shirts with martini glasses on them, had a wallet chain and pocket watch, and generally absorbed a host of style tips from different musical eras without regard for continuity. I invited Big Bad Voodoo Daddy to my Eagle Scout ceremony. And got a response! It was a really nice postcard.

I also listened to Slipknot, Ben Folds Five, and Outkast, but swing and jazz provided a ready-made identity. It had a language. A dress code. An attitude. Trivia. A complete system.

It’s all profoundly embarrassing, which is why I was desperate to see whether Swing Kids, the 1993 granddaddy of the swing revival, held up without nostalgia goggles on.

Hepcats vs Nazis

The movie takes place in 1939 Hamburg where a group of kids passionate for big band music and British fashion come of age during the rapid ascendancy of the Nazis. Peter (Robert Sean Leonard) is sweet and emo, a boy whose professional violinist father died shortly after the Nazis tortured him in 1933. He’s quick to temper, especially if you’re a dumb-faced Nazi block captain slapping his mother (Barbara Hershey) around.

Thomas (Christian Bale) is even quicker to start punching, which gives him a natural good guy sheen when it comes to beating the crap out of goons in the Hitler Jugend (the Nazi youth program) bullying a Jewish boy on the way to yeshiva. It doesn’t matter that he didn’t know who he was saving, or that he probably did it because he thinks the HJs are tragically uncool. He’s a guy you want in your corner.

He’s also constantly butting heads with Arvid (Frank Whaley), a virtuoso guitar player who compensates for his dance-inhibiting leg deformity by learning everything about every jazz song. Recording dates and locations. Who solos. What brand of cymbals the drummer used, probably. Every geek crew has an Arvid: the fanboy who’s into the hobby just a little more than everyone else.

They all try to stick together as personal and political forces pull them in opposing directions.

When I was a kid about half past three…

The appeal of Swing Kids to a 13-year-old band nerd is obvious and two-fold. First, there’s the music. The dance hall sequences are electrifying swirls of feet and legs and snapping fingers. There’s a clear, unselfconscious love for the music that spills out into the choreography that introduces Thomas and Peter as teen royalty. Every night is the best night of their lives.

These sequences were PG sexy. Girls’ skirts flew high in the air, everything seemed sweaty, and bodies spun by and collided in a heated frenzy, backed up by a musical burst of intense joy. It reminded me most of the local punk scene where, if you slipped on the sweat-soaked floor in the mosh pit, a stranger’s hand would always appear to pull you back on your feet.

The idea that a bunch of teens could go out on the town, grab beers, and literally pick up girls was also endlessly appealing to me. It seemed grown up, and it thrilled me the same way seeing my much-older brother’s first apartment away from home did.

The big band bliss was balanced by a complicated camaraderie of friends drawn together largely because of their shared interest. They rarely gelled well, and Peter regularly played peacemaker between Arvid and Thomas before heads cooled down again. I think now that the characters must have also let me live out the fantasy of what I would do if confronted by Nazis. I could see power in teenagers fighting back against an unstoppable wave of hatred and injustice, even in their own superficial way.

But most of all, these were high schoolers learning about and falling in love with the same musicians I was learning about and falling in love with. Benny Goodman. Count Basie. Duke Ellington. They obsessed over music. So did I. They were trying to get girlfriends. So was I. They were navigating the dangerous waters of a murderous regime that demanded full loyalty. I could fantasize about doing the same. Fighting back against genocidal maniacs by putting on my dancing shoes. You cannot love swing music and be a Nazi.

It was also difficult to tell if the swing kids were cool at school or hopeless dorks grasping for popularity only in their cafes. That made sense to me. A few years on from Dead Poet’s Society, Robert Sean Leonard was King of the Sensitive Boys, and I saw a lot of myself in him no matter how much I wanted to relate to Christian Bale’s brawler courage.

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