Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Kids Are Alright (1979)

(PG, New World Pictures, 109 minutes, theatrical release date: June 15, 1979)

I was listening to music on magnetic tape for years before the conversion to compact disc, a transition eased over by my subscription to the Columbia House music catalogue. My early music education were repeated listens to whole albums by Peter Gabriel, The Beastie Boys, Michael Jackson, and Green Day on cassette. By the time I was in junior high, I had discovered The Who and coveted a huge chunk of their discography, chiefly the mid-1990s MCA remasters which often doubled their original track listings in rare and unreleased material. I had become intimately familiar with at least 50 Pete Townshend compositions, such was the gifts he gave as a musician and songwriter. And I realized just how unique a collective The Who were, acknowledging the volatile but passionate chemistry which Townshend shared alongside flexing blonde frontman Roger Daltrey, the stoic but striking bassist John Entwistle and, of course, Keith Moon "the Loon" on the skins.

There isn't a documentary which can fully do justice to the combustible, crazed push-and-pull between these four unique geezers who started out as totems of London youth culture before becoming stadium-packing superstars who straddled the line between the conceptual and the cataclysmic. However, a teenaged super fan named Jeff Stein was given a go in the latter half of the 1970s. Stein had already published a photo album compiled with Chris Johnston before he found himself pitching the idea of a visual scrapbook to an indifferent Pete Townshend. Band manager Bill Curbishley convinced Pete to reconsider, and soon Stein had edited together a 17-minute demo reel which inspired gales of psychotic laughter amongst the band and their spouses, thus Stein won their collective approval.

The Kids Are Alright is a preservationist's passion project more than an official band bio, but therein lies the appeal. Stein had to hustle his way into rounding up reams of classic Who footage, even going through the dumpster of the band's former label, and also coaxed the group into filming new material beginning in the summer of 1977 to fill in the blanks. But this wasn't the same band Stein witnessed as an awestruck 11-year-old in front of the Fillmore East stage, especially given Townshend's insular manifestos of middle-age malaise on albums like The Who By Numbers and the forthcoming Who Are You. Also, Keith Moon's wild man tendencies were getting the best of him, resulting in chemical dependency treatment and a paunchier physicality which curbed his ability to hold a drum stick.

The group agreed to perform a handful of one-off concerts in Kilburn and Middlesex, their last shows with Moon, so that Stein could definitively capture early 1970s warhorses "Baba O'Riley" and "Won't Get Fooled Again." Despite Townshend's reluctant cooperation, as he wasn't keen on doing an encore performance having given it his all before, and the post-production assistance of John Entwistle as musical director and overdubbing wizard, Stein and The Who ended the project in acrimony. Entwistle himself, contentious of the project to end of his days, oversaw a re-edit of the film for the European market and was even one step close to filing an injunction out of disgust. This truncated version, which was also egregiously sped up in spots for time constraints, became the norm when The Kids Are Alright made the rounds on home video, with only the rare television airing presenting a quality viewing in its intended cut. The humble, well-intentioned Stein proved wary in discussing his experience until a friend of Townshend contacted him about adding his insights on the 2003 special edition restoration.

Despite the fractured working relationships, frustrating archival forages and the specter of the late Keith Moon, The Kids Are Alright remained a critical and fan favorite in the rockumentary subgenre. Stein panned a goldmine of sorts before MTV and VH1 came along into popular consciousness. The Who would never truly be the same, but their legacy as one of the loudest, proudest rock bands from the British Invasion from 1965 to 1978 was secure. And you can definitely sense the personalities of each individual band member in every sound bite and amplified blast. In short, this is a movie that thrives on the spirit of rock ‘n' roll without the dispiriting need to explain the magic away.

Before Elvis Costello and The Replacements punked Saturday Night Live, for instance, The Who pulled one of the greatest on-air practical jokes when they were asked to appear on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in September 1967. Tommy Smothers introduced the band following a "performance" of their biggest U.S. hit, "I Can See for Miles," and you can definitely get a sense of the quartet's individual attributes. There's Pete Townshend, self-effacing, windmill-armed and still in his rambunctious, guitar-abusing prime. There's deadpan John Entwistle, "The Quiet One" with the perpetually-bored demeanor and also the earliest person alive to justify the bass guitar as a melodic lead. There's Roger Daltrey, gritty-voiced but goofy enough to introduce himself as "Roger from Oz."

And then there was Moonie…

From his prickly retorts ("My friends call me Keith, you can call me John") to his mockingly dainty miming of the drum track to his excitable, anything-for-a-lark energy, Keith Moon was uncontainable. His reckless attitude pushed him into one-upping the pyrotechnic conclusion of "My Generation" by enticing a stage hand to add ten times more explosive charge to his bass drum. And poor Pete is clearly in the line of fire, resulting in unscripted, spontaneous reactions from him and Tommy that are practically the funniest moments ever broadcast. This anarchic American appearance remains as disturbingly hilarious now as it did back when The Who were still British Invasion novices.

This wasn't the last time The Who turned talk show appearances into a farce. Scattered throughout the film are clips from their 1973 guest appearance on ITV's Russell Harty Plus, in which Moon damn near drives both Townshend and Harty to nervous breakdowns. All you need to know is that Moon refers to Daltrey as a "rust repairman," tears apart Pete's shirt, strips off his own clothes ("You just carry on, Russell"), and starts to rip into Harty with his own interview questions.

Don't worry, there is still music to be heard, and The Kids Are Alright does a fine enough job spanning The Who's career. The earliest live footage on display comes from their post-High Numbers tenure playing what the band called "Maximum R&B," unveiling their first original tunes such as "I Can't Explain" and "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere" whilst still performing electrified James Brown funk ("Shout and Shimmy"). But compared to contemporaries The Kinks and Brown's own skin-tight rhythm section, The Who were eager to color in the margins of their harmonic pop tunes with rapid-fire drumming and squealing, feedback-laden guitar heroics.

"My Generation," the stuttering, slinky signature song which defined The Who in and beyond the 1960s, is the very first number heard in the Smothers Brothers excerpt and is reprised throughout various points in their repertoire. Both their Monterey Pop and Woodstock sets are represented by "My Generation" and a 1975 stadium performance in Detroit, played to a record 78,000 attendees, repurposes it as a blues song which fits it snugly into a medley alongside Bo Diddley's "Road Runner." It serves as a place-holder of sorts which charts the evolution of The Who from bratty Brits of cultish fancy to mainstream rock royalty.

The Who's assimilation could best be chalked up to the successes of concurrent albums Tommy, Who's Next and Quadrophenia, only the latter of which is not represented in any of the song selections. Maybe they were afraid of teasing Franc Roddam's impending, impeccable feature-length film adaptation of that classic double-LP. Also, there was a dearth of professionally-shot live footage for much of the early 1970s, which means the two most famous rockers from Who's Next were captured exclusively for this film. "Baba O'Riley" and "Won't Get Fooled Again" sound monstrous in the takes recorded for posterity on The Kids Are Alright, even with Moon's diminished abilities. The first appears early enough and benefits from seeing Townshend's strutting, spastic energy up close, whilst the laser-light spectacle which accompanies the latter ably leads you into the vocal-shredding, power-sliding conclusion of the film.

Sadly, not every glorious note of the band's past can fit into this one film. Their 1970 performance at the Isle of Wight, which has since been well preserved and issued commercially, had tracks such as Entwistle's "Heaven and Hell," "I Don't Even Know Myself" (a prelude to Townshend's bloodier midlife crisis confessionals) and their pulverizing cover of Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues" (immortalized on Live at Leeds) which are indispensable. But it's a treat to hear the likes of "A Quick One, While He's Away" (from a ‘68 slot on The Rolling Stones' Rock ‘n' Roll Circus which wasn't officially released until 30 years after; ironically, the widely-available European cut it to a fifth of its full-length until the 2003 special edition DVD of The Kids Are Alright restored it right), "Success Story" (Entwistle's satirical contribution to 1975's The Who by Numbers) and the Moon composition "Cobwebs and Strange" (played over footage shot for a promotional video to accompany the obscure non-LP single "Call Me Lightning" among other such debauched ephemera).

Throughout it all, the band members are presented mostly self-effacing in their off-stage moments. The team-up of Keith Moon with Ringo Starr proves doubly cheeky when the Beatle drummer inquires about Moon's relationship to his band mates, whilst Entwistle is the subject of a mock-fantasy sequence where he skeet-shoots his platinum and gold records. Ever contradictory, Townshend's attitude changes with the weather during his many interviews, from catty (slagging off The Beatles to a teenybopper crowd) to bored (nodding off during a long-winded interview) to mischievous (recalling his childhood adventures in shoplifting to Melvyn Bragg) to deadly honest. Even in his earliest comments, you can clearly sense the discontent which he exercised lyrically throughout the later half of the 1970s. But along comes Roger Daltrey at the end to remind you that "Rock & roll's never ever stood dissecting or inspecting it at close range...It doesn't stand up. So shut up."

That's it, review over!

No, Daltrey and Stein clearly share the same "let the music do the talking" ethos, the thing which makes this such a compulsive watch. Songs like "Substitute," "See Me, Feel Me" and "Happy Jack" don't need me talking about the context and clips in which they are presented, as they are simply three of the most levitating slices of prime sixties rock any band would kill to have written. I don't need to delve into the primal frustration of Pete and/or Keith destroying their instruments onstage, as it's just an awesome way to end a show. And why should I prattle on about how poor Keith sounds out of his element taking the lead vocal on an impromptu cover of The Beach Boys' "Barbara Ann," when it's far more rock & roll than the finale of Surf Ninjas?

The Who Are You (who-who, who-who!). If you really wanna know, The Kids Are Alright will be more than happy to show you. You run less of a risk of jumping on the stage and having Pete's foot join together with your balls.

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