"Swing Kids" Soundtrack

"Young people risked their lives to listen to it." ---Advertisement for the "Swing Kids" soundtrack

The "Swing Kids" Lindy-Hop.
History lies at the center of the film "Swing Kids" and its soundtrack. The film opens and closes with National Geographic-esque commentary describing the rebellious youngsters in Nazi Germany who wore their hair long and zealously bought illegal recordings of Goodman and Shaw; the soundtrack, in a similarly historic vein, is comprised entirely of songs that existed during the Swing era. Some of the recordings are original and some are modern re-recordings, but both serve to create the impression of authenticity.

An analysis of modern Swing would naturally pay special attention to the re-recordings, but the film itself subtly emphasizes them: on screen, every song that the Swing Kids dance to at clubs is the work of a modern band. Vintage recordings, however, including Goodman's "Goodnight, My Love" and "Flat-Foot Floogie" are employed only as "mood music," audible in the background as characters fall in love or simply walk down the street. Perhaps the most important feature of Swing was that it was dancing music, and to re-record every one of the dance hall band's charts for the film is a significant decision. According to "Swing Kids"'s usage of classic Swing music, the songs that old Swing bands actually played serve only to "date" the era for an audience, just as the three-piece suits and early automobiles do; it is instead modern Swing which best captures the speed, rhythm, dynamics, and feeling of what Swing era audiences enjoyed.

"Swing Kids" as Modern Swing

The re-recordings of "Swing Kids" are, by and large, faithful to the old songs as far as actual notes go and would be easily recognizable to anyone who knew the original version. The changes, though subtle, nonetheless shed light on modern Swing perceptions.

The soundtrack's first selection is Goodman's wildly popular "Sing, Sing, Sing", opening with the familiar driving drumline, accented trombone figure, and trumpet fanfare. Goodman's solo is faithfully played (only one note is altered), and the band's phrases are note-for-note the same on both recordings. The modern version, however, departs from the classic "Sing, Sing, Sing" in the very first measure, and most of the departures on this song exist in the other updated Swing tunes on the soundtrack, as well.

A comparison of the two introductory drum solos reveals a glaring contrast: Gene Krupa's original solo sounds sparser, for he doesn't utilize bass drum and high hat cymbal to create a stronger beat, as his '90s counterpart does. The new solo is also sixteen measures long, taking more time excite the dancers and impart the rhythm before the band kicks in, whereas Krupa only played eight. As the band begins playing, Krupa plays simple eighth notes which he occasionally embellishes with short rolls or taps, but the modern version contains a constant "ride" cymbal pattern and slightly more elaborate fills between phrases.

Legendary "Sing, Sing, Sing" drummer Gene Krupa.

The modern band is noticeably more driving than Goodman's. While the original "Sing, Sing, Sing" has three distinctive-sounding families of instruments (trumpet, trombone, and saxophone), the modern band resembles a solid "wall of sound" more than anything else. Saxophones dramatically crescendo up from nearly nothing to begin the band's music, trumpets heavily accent the measures immediately before the clarinet solo in the update where the original did not, and plunger mutes in one of the new trumpet section features create a much tougher, new sound. The new end of "Sing, Sing, Sing" is extended by eight measures as the trumpets repeat the phrase up a third, and a two measure drum break was certainly not part of the original ending.

The next re-recorded Swing classic is Count Basie's "Shout and Feel It". Notewise, the song retains Basie's imaginative saxophone lines and interesting backup figures, but also contains the "wall of sound" and slightly-too-tricky drum lines that appeared in the new "Sing, Sing, Sing." What is most striking about this song, however, is the guitar work introducing the piece and featured in a lengthy and impressive solo. Guitar solos were highly unusual in Big Bands, and, when they actually happened, were certainly not as prominent as the "Swing Kids" soundtrack would have a listener believe.

"Bei Mir Bist Du Schon" is the only re-recorded Swing song to feature a vocalist. The words remain the same and the band's playing style is mostly authentic the same loud way that all of the updates are, but this track is unusual for its lack of a consistent tempo. Though slowing down and speeding up was common in some of the more sentimental Swing era tunes, "Bei Mir Best Du Schon" spends half of its time gradually moving faster and faster. In the film, the song has the effect of stirring up the crowd into a dancing frenzy, causing them to happily whirl about not so much because of the quick tempo, but because of the exhilaration of acceleration. Swing era musicians disliked overly-vivacious dancing in general, and certainly wouldn't have quickened a serene slow song in order to achieve such an excited effect.

"Life Goes to a Party/Jumpin' at the Woodside", a fusion of Goodman and Basie, puts an extra heavy emphasis on ensemble, "wall of sound" power playing. Goodman's original "Life Goes to a Party" features impressive solos by trumpeter Harry James and Goodman himself, but the two performances have been cut out of the updated tune except in the end, where the clarinet solo is so instrumental to the musical texture that it is impossible to remove. In place of the solos, loud, full Basie licks from "Jumpin' at the Woodside" are inserted. It's an intriguing and unusual decision: why go to such lengths as importing "best of" hits from another song instead of presenting the original faithfully?

Swing captivates actor
Robert Sean Leonard.
Solos, in fact, are notably absent from all the re-recorded "Swing Kids" songs; only clarinet, drums, and one singer are highlighted, and the classic solos by James and Goodman have been removed from "Sing, Sing, Sing" as well. One conclusion is fairly obvious: for modern connoisseurs of Swing, bigger and louder is better, and single players aren't able to achieve the pounding sound neccessary for a modern audience accustomed to bass that thumps them in the stomach. In Swing re-recordings, the complete ensemble takes precedence.

All in all, the "Swing Kids" soundtrack's attention to the "bigger, faster, louder, more" of jazz leaves the album devoid of much of the personality that made Swing so popular. Competing bands of the Swing era were defined by their leading soloists and their musical styles, and "offshoot" bands like Krupa's and James' were only possible because their bandleaders had established themselves as soloists previously. James' solo on "Life Goes to a Party", which is cut from the soundtrack, has genuine and exciting expression, and the charm of Krupa's "Sing, Sing, Sing" drumline is its tiny and gradual variations. Even the Swing Kids in the movie recognize the vital nature of soloists, for they sit about their club endlessly debating whether or not Tommy Dorsey plays "hot" or "sweet" the same way a sports fan would analyze every last statistic of the quarterback of his favorite football team.

The Swing of this record is largely a series of loud beats, flashy ensemble lines, and an overpowering musical blanket designed to invigorate dancers, and only fast dancers, at that, since not a single slow or even medium-tempo song has been chosen for re-recording. Swing, according to "Swing Kids," is a sort of Techno for the '40s: not a musical art form, but a heavily accented, sped up, and across-the-board forte, not an instrument of expression, but an agent of fun, allowing its listeners to cut loose and dance as joyfully and excitedly as they wish.