THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT - long live rock
Jeff Stein was a 17-year old Who fanatic when he came up with the idea of making a film documenting the beginning years of the band’s existence. Not knowing which way to turn, Stein put together a 17-minute movie highlighting clips of Who performances from such sources as the Smothers Brothers TV show, British pop music shows and other found interview and performance footage. It was basically a mash up of clips and other Who sundries rather than original footage shot by Stein, who - at that time - was merely a fan albeit a rabid one.
In the meantime, Stein’s book of photographs from the 1970 Who tour was released, which resulted in meeting Pete Townshend, the Who‘s songwriter, guitar player and sometime vocalist. Stein and Townshend met again in 1975, when the film version of TOMMY came out and Stein pitched Townshend with the idea for a film about the band. He solidified the deal by showing Townshend and the rest of the Who the infamous 17-minute film. A few years later, Stein’s feature length Who documentary - THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT - was completed. Stein had expanded the 17-minute mash-up prototype into a mash-up of just over 90-minutes but also featured original footage shot by Stein, who organized whole concerts performed specifically for the film. Stein also shot studio footage of the band during production of the album “Who Are You.”
Documentary films about rock and roll had been produced prior to the Stein film, notably D.A. Pennebaker’s 1967 Dylan doc DON’T LOOK BACK, Pennebaker’s MONTEREY POP (1968), Michael Wadleigh’s 1970 WOODSTOCK, the Maysles’ Rolling Stones flick GIMME SHELTER (also 1970 and an antithesis to the peace and love WOODSTOCK construct), and, in the 1970s - the Led Zeppelin Madison Square Garden concert epic THE SONG REMAINS THE SAME (Peter Clifton, 1976), Neil Young‘s 1979 RUST NEVER SLEEPS, and a handful of others.
But Stein’s THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT, also released in 1979, showed the band rising to its heights of power with the use of found footage, whiplash and nonlinear editing, an ear splitting soundtrack - all of which throws viewers directly into the laps of the musicians. The concert footage shows the band’s development without typical biopic vanities such as personnel background info or narration and - most important - it never lets the viewer off the hook with each musical interlude as intense as the next.
Footage from as early as 1965 is butted against concert sequences from 1978 in such a way that you’re able to see the progression of the band in a matter of seconds and you become a witness to watching the Who find its voice even though it was pretty potent in ’65. The first time you see Pete Townshend transform into a dervish is akin to a rock and roll revelation - and his guitar playing becomes more complex and all consuming.
But the drumming…
Keith Moon was the Who’s resident madman, a drunken sod, who played drums like an AK47 and set the standards so high for other rock and roll drummers that the idea of drumming in a band became completely moot - why bother? Never mind Charlie Watts or John Bonham, Moon did it all. But it’s a different era now and the pure fire power of a Keith Moon - though highly influential - isn’t really part of the corporate machinations of rock anymore. Moon was a machine gun player and when he died shortly before the release of THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT - he overdosed on a drug that was supposed to help him kick alcohol - the Who died with him. And with that - some feel - was the real death of rock and roll (Buddy Holly notwithstanding). Ironically, Moon’s death coincided with the emergence of punk - long live rock…be it dead or alive.
I never saw the Who - in fact, I wasn’t a fan back then - but you couldn’t miss them. They were all over the radio and had been since the mid-1960s not far off the heels of the Stones or the Beatles. Only thing was - the Who (and THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT is a testament to this statement) rocked harder, had more soul, was dirtier, had more grit and grunge than the whole of the 1960s British Invasion.
For THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT - director Stein opted for an organic approach to making the film. He wanted to show the band as they were, in an unrefined state in a non-linear fashion. The film jumps all over the place from footage of the Who performing on TV in the mid-60s on British rock shows, in black and white, to Woodstock sessions and performing in stadiums in the mid to late 70s. Between performance footage, there’s footage of the band being interviewed in group or alone but not by Stein - this stuff was culled from various television shows the band did over the years - it was just strung together between rock shows emphasizing complete rock and roll lunacy. One string shows Ringo Starr drinking with Keith Moon, while the two rap about rock music and drumming - obviously both loving the limelight and digging the booze.
For the film, Stein was not concerned with the band’s history as he was with the band’s hysteria - both internally and externally. After all, the band fancied themselves as a reflection of the audience - working class, hard rocking fans who only dreamed of getting clobbered by Roger Daltry’s swinging microphone.
Much of the Who footage used in THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT had been thrown away but Stein found yards and yards of film of the Who in performance in studio dumpsters, in attics, basements, in the hands of fans who had shot stuff in 8mm, as well as archaic video archives. Back in the 70s you didn’t have DV or high-def cameras, you didn’t edit movies on computers. You spliced and taped spaghetti strands of film together by instinct more so than the “cut and paste” sensibility found in our computer world today.
Stein compiled footage from varying formats such as PAL and NTSC, 8mm, 16mm, 35mm negatives - so many formats that putting THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT together was a “Hurculean task.” Processing was difficult and time consuming but was of a time and place - like the band itself - yet was light years ahead of the “rock-umentary“ genre (a term first encountered in Rob Reiner’s fabulous THIS IS SPINAL TAP) used by music television stations such as VH1 or MTV - where the “rock-umentary” became a rage - and then a cliché - during in the 1990s, culminating in the “Unplugged” series, which included occasionally brilliant performances by the likes of Neil Young and Nirvana.
Even though THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT doesn’t hold back on the excess of certain members of the band - especially revealing is a drunken interchange between Townshend and Moon - there’s an unbridled joy that’s missing in documentaries or docudramas focused on rock and roll. Most tend to dwell on the destructive nature of the business - the hard drinking, drug abuse, sex abuse - that watching recent rock docs makes you forget that rock music was originally designed as a rebellious celebration of youth rather than the obvious decadent implications.
Maybe when THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT came out in 1979, less than a year after Keith Moon’s death, it was perceived as a sort of accidental eulogy. But - seen now - THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT is so energized, so life-affirming that its hard to watch without wishing you could have been there in those rock clubs or stadiums where the Who smashed their equipment, where Pete Townshend played his guitar so furiously that blood sprayed from his fingers every time his windmilling hand crashed down on the instrument’s strings.