The ultimate rock band in the ultimate rock film!
At one point in time on this sad planet, there was no more perfect rock band than The Who. Now, you could champion Led Zeppelin with their stadium shake or name-check The Rolling Stones as the perennial nominee for the titan title. Maybe you're the kind that would move totally off the mainstream map and praise The Ramones or The Clash. No problem: each of these bands was great in their own way. But each also had their flaws, self-indulgent issues that kept them from reaching the precision that raises rock to the level of art. Not The Who. They reached total rock and roll consciousness. Outfitted like warriors, ready to battle those who would keep the youth from experiencing the raw energy and rebellion in the power chord or snare drum snap, Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey, John Entwistle, and Keith Moon personified the reactionary within the regularity of misfits from the wrong side of the tracks. They were four self-effacing blokes who could blast an arena with their four-part vibrancy and still mesmerize a listener with their musical complexity. And always, buried within their sonic rumble and rage, snippets of humor and humble truth slowly seeped out. For The Who, life was indeed a teenage wasteland, a place where the new boss was just like the old boss and the hope that we would die before we got old seemed romantic and right for the times.
By the album Who's Next, they had ascended the musical mountain and stood upon its jagged peak, looking down upon the adoring, exploring masses. In that moment, The Who became literal gods of rock and roll. Each personality within the band represented its own fragile façade of talent as channeled and chaotic. Pete was (and always shall be) the voice of rock, the god of sensitivity and salvation in the power chord. Bashing his axe with a windmill strike that seemed to celebrate Heaven as it summoned Hell, he was a devilish imp with a slightly cynical grin on his face and an undeniable authority in his fingers. Roger, on the other hand, was rock god as icon, a beautiful man with long golden locks and his skin too tightly stretched across his sculpted chest. His was a voice of ethereal force that could shatter the clouds or caress a single moment in time. John was the god of thunder, of the bass as a bottom layer and foundation of strength. Quietly, expertly, he unleashed a torrent of body shaking vibration that circled his fellow band mates, creating battlements to defend them as they continued their anarchic assault. Then there was Keith. He was a rock god as delirious demon, whirling dervish drum disorientation delivering an unbridled brawl across the tightly stretched skins of his kit. Part jester, part savant, he defined rock star behavior, from degenerate to destructive, for all musicians who came after. Placed together on a stage in front of thousands or in a studio with each other, they were the four elements, the mighty winds, North to West and all points in between, collected and concentrated. The music they made defined generations and genres. The Who were rock and roll.
The great thing about the 1979 film and the 2003 DVD of The Kids are Alright is that you get to witness The Who in almost all of their incarnations: R&B ravers, Mod poppers, blues aficionados, rock opera stars, and hard driving anthem blasters. Relying solely on interview clips from television appearances, in-concert song selections, and some staged material, The Kids Are Alright is reminiscent of watching a greatest hits album come to life before your very eyes. The Who's music has always been very personal and reflective of its band and their personalities, and this documentary makes that point perfectly. Pete comes across as a tired and tormented genius, almost always stoned but still having to respond to all manner of misguided attempts at deciphering his music and muse. Keith is just a clown, the kind of cheeky monkey who some find irritating, but through his personality this wounded wunderkind showed a huge heart full of love and ache. Surprisingly, there is very little Roger to be seen here; shown mostly on stage and through a tellingly curt sound bite or two, he seems the most removed from the whole Who experience while being its most recognizable, undeniable icon. John is given a small staged skit where he skeet shoots his gold records, but mostly he seems content to sit back and let the others make asses of themselves. For him, rock is a job and a joy, but his stone-faced façade never gives that away.
Jeff Stein's film is frenetic in pace and non-stop in beautiful noise. He juxtaposes the band at the height of their power with old clips of teen talk show chats. He shows a bedraggled Pete answering another variation on the "rock as life" inquiry and then gives the real answer by showing just how "alive" he becomes onstage. Seeing the Mod days helps fans understand the impact this band had on future superstars like The Jam and all the material from the '70s highlights what is easily the most decadent phase in rock and roll history. Still, the movie is really a glowing, stunning montage of the entire Who songbook, from the initial classics like "My Generation" and "I Can't Explain" to later wonders from Tommy and Who's Next. We even witness the band's last session together for the video of the song "Who Are You?" Keith died a few weeks after the shoot, and it's a testament to the band that they have never once wanted this film to be altered or amended to address his passing. Apparently, the most beautiful eulogy the band could conceive of for their fallen comrade in cacophony was this documentary. The Kids Are Alright personifies the power and presence of The Who, and even without a linear narrative or classic concert hook, this is one of the best rock and roll movies ever.
The truly unbelievable thing about this DVD presentation is that, as good as the film is, it comes in two distinct and confusing packages that oddly make you choose between a wealth of bonuses (the "Special Edition") or a standard, straightforward near no-frills experience (the "Deluxe Edition"). The Deluxe Edition, which is being reviewed here, has a fabulous image, a pristine 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that melds many divergent elements (television, video, film, newsreels, and kinoscopes) into a panoramic overview of the band's image and history. Sonically, the film has never, ever sounded this good. Remastered in 5.1 (DTS and Dolby Digital) and 2.0 Surround, the music is virtually reborn in this digital presentation. A song like "Baba O'Reilly" or the amazing Rolling Stone's Rock and Roll Circus performance of "A Quick One (While He's Away)" are breathtaking in their aural muscle and scope. The Who was a great live band and the sound on The Kids Are Alright clearly proves this fact. But when it comes to extras, the Deluxe Edition comes up short. There is a playful and informative commentary with Jeff Stein (as well as moderator Martin Lewis and DVD producer John Albarian). Stein is evasive, silly, and effervescent while discussing his movie, not really wanting to give much detail beyond how magnificent he feels his subject matter is. The comments rage from the obvious ("Here's Woodstock") to the obtuse (he says "we'll talk about that later" a great deal, and then never goes back) but mostly, Stein gives us an encyclopedic overview of the band and his fascination with them. Along with a great 32-page book with wonderful pictures and in-depth discussions of the band and the song selection in the film, the Deluxe Edition is fine, but horribly incomplete.
For proof, here is what you are missing when you fail to purchase the far more expensive two-disc Special Edition set:
• Roger Daltrey—An incredible new on-camera interview from
this living legend.
So now that you know this movie is worth getting and that The Who, in general, are the seminal bands in the history of rock and roll, skip the silly, unnecessary Deluxe Edition, lay down the extra cash and appreciate the wonders that are to be found in the essential Special Edition. This is not to say that you won't enjoy the Deluxe version if it happens to find its way into your hands. But it's no "Substitute" for the wealth of Who related treasures and The Kids Are Alright movie material to be found there. The Special Edition blows the Deluxe Edition away "Anyway, Anyhow, Anyplace." Don't get fooled…again.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary by Director Jeff Stein
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