Television watchers may know him best as Dr. James Wilson, the steadfast number two to Hugh Laurie's misanthropic medical anti-hero on "House," but my fondness for Robert Sean Leonard goes back to his early days. In 1988 he struggled admirably adjusting to life as a newly undead teenager (My Best Friend is a Vampire), and a year later he struggled further to express his inner artist at a 1950's era prep school (Dead Poets Society). (Without a doubt, Robert Sean Leonard is and was a fine on-screen struggler.)
However, my favorite movie to watch Leonard struggle in came during his fruitful twentysomething years, when he and a 19-year-old Christian Bale partnered to hoof it up in the face of fascism. Yes folks, I'm talking about the best and only Nazi Germany period dance drama ever made: Swing Kids!
Leonard starred in the 1993 period drama as Peter Müller, a college-aged German kid who spends his days listening to contraband American jazz and swing with his friends Thomas (Christian Bale), Otto (Jayce Bartok) and Arvid (Frank Whaley). It's 1939 in Hamburg, and while the National Socialist party is on the rise, Peter and his pals can't be bothered to care. Instead, they dance their days away with their long hair and their stylish duds, buy banned records by Jewish musicians like Benny Goodman, and wonder what the heck is wrong with their old friends who've up and joined the Hitler Youth. They self-identify as "Swing Kids," hence the title.
But Peter finds himself in hot water when he and his bestie Thomas decide to steal a Nazi-appropriated radio, and in the ensuing chase Peter is caught by police, while Thomas -- maybe stronger, faster, and with sharper self-preservation instincts -- escapes. Peter is forced to join the Hitler Youth as punishment by the evil Nazi Kenneth Branagh, Thomas joins him in a gesture of solidarity, and the two of them attempt to live double lives as "[Hitler Youth] by day, Swing Kids by night."
Based on the real-life counter-culture that grew out of secret swing clubs in Nazi Germany, Swing Kids explored the German youth experience through Peter's eyes -- or rather, through Robert Sean Leonard's tortured brow. Leonard's Peter went from ignorant (well, as ignorant as one could be when witnessing beatings, killings, and kidnappings in Nazi Germany) to horrified and guilt-ridden once he realized the truth and scope of what was happening. Leonard's expressive face was made for these kinds of feelings -- anguish, bliss, conflict, resignation. Swing Kids may not have exactly been Oscar material, but Leonard gave it the gravitas it needed to be more than just a silly period dance movie.
For example, juxtapose the first and last big dance numbers. Beyond the Lindy hopping and the impressive choreography involving dozens of extras, director Thomas Carter captures Leonard's emotion in relation to his connection to music and dance. In the first scene, as Leonard's Peter and Bale's Thomas swagger into a club to the opening notes of "Sing, Sing, Sing (With a Swing)," the two BFF heroes are on top of the world. You can practically see the music coursing through to the very fiber of Peter's being as he snaps and shakes to the music (Thomas, on the other hand, never quite feels the swing as purely as Peter does, which explains why he's so much more easily beckoned to the dark side).
But by the time Peter finds himself dancing alone at the empty Café Bismarck, it's clear that things have changed. The Nazis have cracked down on the Swing Kids, his friend Arvid is dead, his mom's being courted by the evil Nazi Kenneth Branagh, and his BFF Thomas is now a full-fledged Hitler fanatic who's about to raid the place. Naturally, Peter's got a few things to work out -- in swing dance! The resulting rendition of "Bei Mir Bist Du Schon" starts out somber and slow, matched by Leonard's tormented moves as Peter lets his frustration out. As the song works itself into a frenzy, so does Peter. By the time Thomas and the rest of the Hitler Youth come storming in, led by the evil former Swing Kid-turned-Nazi Noah Wyle, Peter's already resigned himself to almost certain capture and arrest.
Hollywood's brief flirtation with the swing music craze may have ended within a few years (Swingers followed in 1996), but Swing Kids stayed firmly beloved in my movie memory. If you haven't seen it, I recommend giving it a chance. (Side benefit: Seeing Christian Bale do even more dancing in his younger days! Make it a Newsies - Swing Kids double feature.) Just remember, kids: Swing Heil!