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James Dean: The First American Teenager (1975)

Explores the myth and the man behind it.

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A wilful young man contends against his brother for the attention of their religious father while reconnecting with his estranged mother and falling for his brother's girlfriend.

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Cast

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Himself (archive footage)
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Adeline Nall ...
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Gene Owen ...
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Christine White ...
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Himself (as Sammy Davis Jnr)
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Kenneth Kendall ...
Himself
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Himself
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Storyline

This is a compilation documentary about James Dean and his effect upon succeeding generations of young people over the past twenty years. It is aimed at relating the social significance of James Dean, whilst at the same time giving as thorough an account as is possible of his life. There is no nostalgia here since Dean is as much a hero today as he was in the late 1950's. The film has exclusive rights to sections of Dean's three films for Warner Brothers: East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause and Giant; in addition, it contains the first screen test he did for Elia Kazan and other rare film footage, and literally hundreds of still photographs. It also contains interviews with many actors and friends including Caroll Baker, Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo, Dennis Hopper, director Nicholas Ray, Sammy Davis Jr. amongst others. In keeping in view of Dean as a contemporary cultural symbol, the music for the film draws upon material by Elton John, David Bowie, Lou Reed and The Eagles.

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PG | See all certifications »
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30 September 1975 (UK)  »

Also Known As:

James Dean - Ein amerikanisches Idol  »

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(Eastmancolor)

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1.33 : 1
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Features Rebel Without a Cause (1955) See more »

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Flawed but essential
7 June 2008 | by (United States) – See all my reviews

This documentary is essential for any fan of James Dean. I agree that the quality is low budget and it would have been nice to have had some interviews with people who knew him in Fairmount. However, at least one other documentary (and some of the books written about Dean) has interviewed those who knew him growing up and they really don't have a heckuva lot to contribute (at least as far as they're willing to reveal).

What is essential about The First American Teenager is that it's the only documentary that interviews Sal Mineo (who is sipping a can of beer), Natalie Wood, and Nicholas Ray (director of Rebel Without a Cause). As such, this documentary has unique footage. Some of these same interviews have been excerpted in later Dean documentaries.

I have to disagree that using '70s rock music is a nice touch, and I say this as someone who happens to enjoy the music in question. My gripe is that this is the only Dean documentary that I'm aware of that so obviously tried to generate audience interest in Dean by pandering to contemporary tastes. This goes against the grain of what has kept Dean relevant to every generation since his death: the timelessness of his impact, various personas, and universal message (he remains as great an icon in Japan, for instance, as anywhere else).

Watching this documentary today is to realize how badly this music dates it. Playing Elton John's "Funeral for a Friend" is fair enough but the use of Bowie's "Rebel, Rebel" and Bad Company's "Movin' On" are anachronistic distractions that appear to have done nothing to popularize this rather obscure documentary. It's not even available on DVD, as contrasted with the numerous other Dean documentaries that are, including the one by PBS' American Masters series, none of which felt compelled to apologize for the fact that Dean lived and died during the Fifties which, by the way, is when rock 'n' roll came of age.


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