The Who: The Kids Are Alright Review
Maximum R&B...it quickly became the description that The Who applied to their music throughout their lifetime, as well as being the title of their outstanding four-CD boxset. Even amongst the roar of late-sixties rock, The Who stood out, both by their volume and their ambition. With a clutch of great albums behind them, 1979 saw the compilation of this documentary, showcasing the greatest British rock band during the years in which everything they touched, even a mini-rock opera about Ivor The Engine Driver, put their peers to shame.
In as much as the recent Led Zeppelin two-disc set had a story of sorts, so The Kids Are Alright is the story of The Who from their earliest years playing in London clubs as The High Numbers through their near-bankruptcy during their year before the release of Tommy and how a deaf, dumb and blind pinball wizard saved them from financial ruin. As Tommy ended the album freed from his obligations as a saviour so that album gave The Who the opportunity to indulge in further concept albums and rock operas, head-staggeringly loud concerts and great rock music.
Yet, in as much as the story of Led Zeppelin ended with the death of their drummer, John Bonham, so The Kids Are Alright ends with the disappointment at seeing Keith Moon age and, although it is not captured in the film, his death two weeks before its premiere. There's no doubt that Moon's death, like Bonham's, was largely self-inflicted given his prodigious drug usage but the difference between the young Moon on one side of the DVD sleeve to the overweight, bearded, understudy to Oliver Reed seen on the other is a clear picture of how The Who changed from art-school punks and creators of daring rock operas to a band who faded from before both prog rock and punk with barely a breath left for a fight.
Unfortunately, The Kids Are Alright is rather too fond of celebrating Moon's performances outside of the stage and recording studio, barely allowing an interview opportunity to pass by without choosing those moments when it dissolves into chaos due to Moon's influence. Even in those moments when Townshend and Moon share a television studio, the film's need to include a moment of destruction from Moon detracts from the intelligent comments offered by Townshend on the band and its place in pop culture, whether as a mod band, as the writers of Tommy or as pensionable rock stars.
But there's always the concert footage and never is it better than during the years either side of Tommy in which Daltrey finally let himself go to be the front man who deserved to be standing to the front of Entwhistle, Moon and Townshend. With Tommy's messianic songs came the need for Daltrey to become the deaf, dumb and blind pinball wizard who is miraculously healed, before opening a retreat within a British seaside holiday camp and as seen at Woodstock in his tasseled leather jacket, he provides Zeppelin's Robert Plant with a marker for his entire wardrobe for the next ten years. Although Entwhistle only changes from year to year by the cut of his moustache and Moon leers out from behind his drumkit, Townshend remains the focus of the music, remaining great so long as he plays either a Rickenbacker, Les Paul or SG and in the Clockwork Orange garb at Woodstock, is the whip-smart street thug to Daltrey's messiah. When it all comes together, as it does on the euphoric performance of See Me, Feel Me at Woodstock, with The Who taking to the stage at 4am, unpaid and having been spiked with LSD, the performance is all that The Who were meant to have been.
Elsewhere, Stein has rescued The Who's performance of A Quick One While He's Away from The Rolling Stones' Rock 'n Roll Circus from whatever archive it was lost within and there's a fistful of great performances and interviews from US, British and German television shows, including Townshend defending The Who from an audience accusing him of having little artistic merit and another in which a young Jeremy Paxman spars lightly with him over his youthful anger.
As good as all this is, The Kids Are Alright still has glaring omissions, of which Quadrophenia is the most obvious. Arguably a better album than Tommy and certainly better at holding tight to a more difficult concept, Quadrophenia has been repeatedly written out of The Who's history and although it was never as extensively toured as either Tommy or Who's Next, neither was Sgt. Pepper but imagine a documentary on The Beatles that failed to mention it. Jeff Stein would have produced a better film had he considered moving away from the concert footage to allow five minutes to the likes of Quadrophenia, Lifehouse, I Can See For Miles and other moments that are either never or only briefly mentioned in the rush to include another shot of Moon's arse or a couple more minutes of live footage.
According to both Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey, Keith Moon was disappointed to see himself looking grizzled, overweight and old but neither Townshend nor Daltrey ever give much away in their appraisal of their band, preferring to stay together, tour the old songs and occasionally get back to finishing off abandoned projects like Lifehouse. As The Who prepare to tour once again, with only Townshend and Daltrey alive, The Kids Are Alright is a great way to look back on the fury, the dazzling rock operas and the Union Jack jackets from when The Who still meant a four-piece piercing 12" speaker bins with the distant end of a Rickenbacker.
Even from the film's opening minutes, it's evident that the transfer of The Kids Are Alright makes it look better than it has in years, even better than its Laserdisc release, according to Jeff Albarian, who remastered the film for DVD. The quality of the image is terrific and although it is a vast improvement on the quality of the VHS release and that of recent cinema screenings, The Kids Are Alright is never quite as flawless as a number of other recent music releases, the Led Zeppelin set included.
The Kids Are Alright has been transferred onto DVD with a PCM stereo soundtrack or a choice of surround soundtracks, either Dolby Digital or DTS. Of the three, the stereo track is the most immediate with the rear channels on the surround tracks being used to add presence to the music tracks if not the interviews.
Audio Commentary: Martin Lewis introduces and hosts the commentary track, joined by director Jeff Stein and the man responsible for the restoration of the film on DVD, Jeff Albarian. As expected from these guests, Stein is good on the origins of the footage and the reaction of the band to seeing the film in 1978-79 whilst Albarian chips in with details on his work for this year's DVD release.
Eyesight To The Blind: This set of subtitles offers liner notes for each song and interview featured in the film.
Guitar & Pen: Whilst given this title, this extra is only English subtitles for the songs and interviews in the film.
Miracle Cure (40m26s, 1.33:1, 2.0 Stereo): Opening with an interview with the producer of the DVD release of The Kids Are Alright, John Albarian discusses his efforts in sourcing footage for this release. In addition to his comments on the old VHS and Laserdisc releases of The Kids Are Alright, Albarian also talks about the amount of searching that was required to track down all of the negatives of the original footage and how the owners of the footage assisted in the restoration of this film. This is an exhaustive documentary and one of the best yet presented on DVD as regards the restoration of a film for release on DVD.
Getting In Tune (6m13s, 1.78:1 Anamorphic, 2.0 Stereo): Using three scenes from The Kids Are Alright - I Can't Explain from 1965's Shindig!, John Entwhistle skeet-shooting his gold discs and Won't Get Fooled Again from the Shepperton Film Studios - this compares the sound from previous releases of this film to the restored sound on this DVD release, showing a clear and improved difference from one to the other.
Trick Of The Light (5m05s, 1.78:1 Anamorphic, 2.0 Stereo): Using split screen, this bonus feature demonstrates the improved quality of the DVD release over the VHS and Laserdisc releases, again using three chapters from the film, including Baba O'Reilly from the Shepperton Film Studios performance, the tour of John Entwhistle's home and a recording of Who Are You in Ramport studios.
The Ox (1.78:1 Anamorphic, 2.0 Stereo): With multiple angles, one for each of the members of The Who, this bonus feature allows John Entwhistle's bass track to be isolated within recordings of Baba O'Reilly (6m42s) and Won't Get Fooled Again (11m39s) from the Shepperton Film Studios performance. Both songs can also be played in full with 5.1 Surround and 2.0 Stereo audio tracks.
The Who's London (8m44s 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic, 2.0 Stereo): This bonus feature looks at twenty key places in London related to where the members of the band were born, where they met, played their first gigs and lived during their early years.
Behind Blue Eyes (25m38s, 1.33:1, 2.0 Stereo): This is an interview with Roger Daltrey, who is now looking very old and who, compared to Pete Townshend, was never the most articulate of interviewees. As a result, this plays up on Daltrey's tough Londoner character and his frequent refusal to give a straight answer soon grates.
Anytime You Want Me: (1.78:1 Anamorphic, 2.0 Stereo): Using the same multiple angles as The Ox - Ox Cam, Pete Cam A, Moonie Can and Roger's Pit Cam - this includes the recordings of Baba O'Reilly (6m42s) and Won't Get Fooled Again (11m39s) from the Shepperton Film Studios performance. Given, however, that John Entwhistle's bass track can be isolated on this extra, Anytime You Want Me is really no more than a retitled version of The Ox.
Pure And Easy: This is a trivia game of twenty-one questions on The Who leading to a recording of Ringo Starr promoting The Kids Are Alright.
It's Hard: Another trivia game of twenty-one questions on The Who leading to a recording of Who Are You (6m21s) remixed in 5.1 Surround.
See My Way (29m23s, 1.33:1, 2.0 Stereo): This is an interview with Jeff Stein, the director of The Kids Are Alright as to his introduction to The Who, how he came to make the film and how his relationship with the band changed during the making of the film, particularly as he requested they perform live for the film.
I'll admit to being biased as the mix of Daltrey and Moon's wild-eyed anger and Townshend's art-school concepts have always impressed me much more than the pop noodlings of The Beatles and the brief bloom of The Rolling Stones. In particular, during the years from the writing of The Who Sell Out, through Tommy, Quadrophenia and Who's Next, The Who left a thrilling set of albums that sit rock and pop next to concept albums about freedom, responsibility, maturity and Odorono deodorant. Yellow submarines? Doesn't get anywhere near...
The Kids Are Alright would have made a perfect boxset had it shipped with Quadrophenia as then the story on The Who would almost have been complete. But to buy both those films and the Maximum R&B boxset, then you're getting close to as good as rock has ever been.