The Reel Who

The publicity materials sent in advance of the at-long-last release of The Kids Are Alright on DVD suggest that the maker of the 1979 documentary about The Who has been on the lam--in the rock-and-roll witness relocation program, perhaps, far from the long windmilling arm of justice. A "recluse" is how the press release describes Jeff Stein, who as a pushy young man in the mid-1970s convinced his favorite rock-and-roll band to let him film them for a documentary against their wishes and better judgment, especially because he was a kid with no filmmaking experience. "Director Jeff Stein has rarely spoken publicly about the making of the film in the 25 years since he completed production," says the notice, which further ratchets up the hype by referring to Stein as a "notoriously enigmatic figure"--as though he were some shadow living in a dark cave never to be found again. Except when you call his cell phone.

Stein, reached while driving the streets of San Francisco, figures he's been labeled as reclusive--a rock-doc Howard Hughes--merely because "there weren't many opportunities to do interviews, I guess," he says, laughing. "I did a lot when the movie came out, but since that time, I've been being treated for post-traumatic stress syndrome, so I'm just re-emerging after 25 years of therapy." He laughs again at the notion that he is a Mystery Man. The dude's quite happy to be found. It's just, well, nobody ever came looking for him.

But, till now, why should they? The Kids Are Alright has existed for years only as a bastardized TV version or an out-of-print videotape, and a shoddy one at that. Certainly, it deserved better: The Kids Are Alright ranks among the most anarchic and bravest rock documentaries ever made; it's not a historical document, as Stein often says, but a "hysterical document." It's a riotous, delirious and, in retrospect, touching mishmash of footage: The film opens on the set of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1967, as Keith Moon's drum kit explodes after "My Generation" and ostensibly ruins Pete Townshend's hearing forever, and moves from 1960s TV-show lip-synchs to '70s-era interviews with a bitter Townshend and a playful Moon and finally climaxes with a pungent "Won't Get Fooled Again."

In 90 minutes, it captures 15 years' worth of tumultuous history: The Who as trend-setting Mods bopping out R&B standards to packed nightclubs of tuxedoed teens; as rock-video forerunners preening for young directors making goofy little promos; as affluent assholes trashing hotel rooms for shits and giggles; as arena-rock deities rendering the stoners deaf, dumb and blind; as dinosaurs refusing to lie down and fossilize in the wake of punk's coming revolution.

"Hysteria over history," says Stein of his agenda in making the fans' ultimate home movie, and never before or since has a band been captured at its best and worst in a single sitting. Stein had first lionized the band from a distance with a book of photos from The Who's 1971 tour, but that didn't satisfy his cravings. In 1975, he found Townshend after the premiere of Ken Russell's film Tommy and badgered him about making a documentary; Townshend only agreed after manager Bill Curbishley thought it an idea and investment worth pursuing. It would take nearly four more years to make the movie, during which time beautiful drummer Keith Moon turned into a prematurely fat old man and died in the bottom of a bottle. By the time The Kids Are Alright premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1979, The Who appeared to be on the verge of becoming The Who Were They. The movie, condemned at the time by The New York Times as being "willfully uninformative," captured not only lightning in a bottle but an entire thunderstorm.

Yet it has somehow managed to slip through the cracks since its U.S. release in May 1979. Its gleefully disheveled, impressionistic telling of The Who's history recounted through the use of old TV clips and rare concert footage and newly staged performance pieces has been treated shabbily. The movie's been butchered for video release and television broadcast, with scenes sliced and performances sped up for time till it all felt like Alvin and the Chipmunks were playing live at Leeds. Remaining prints decayed to the point of becoming unwatchable. And for years The Who did nothing to enhance its reputation: Front man Roger Daltrey once damned Stein as an "amateur," while bassist John Entwistle re-cut the film for release in Europe after dismissing it as talky and dull and exploitive of Moon's death in September 1978. In one interview, Entwistle said he called the band's manager, Bill Curbishley, and told him "the film is a piece of shit; I've got to stop it" and threatened to file an injunction against its release.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky