Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Who: The Kids Are Alright

If you wanted to be cynical, you could say that Jeff Stein’s 1979 film is little more than an assemblage of a decade and a half’s worth of concert footage loosely interlinked by snippets of interviews. By cherry-picking from TV slots, behind-the-scenes studio material, live performance and curios such as the comedic proto-music-video for never-produced BBC television show ‘Sound and Picture City’, Stein’s project immediately marks out a territory beyond the standard concert film. But by the same token, his choice of interview clips is so spurious and satirical that even the most elastic definition of documentary snaps out of the reviewer’s fingers and goes flying off into the distance rather than be applied to ‘The Who: The Kids Are Alright’.

It’s neither one thing nor the other. A curate’s egg. A candidate for casual dismissal, except for two things:

1) The interview clips, never mind that they’re uncontextualised and truncated, are jaw-dropping for their admixture of self-importance and self-deprecation;

2) It’s a film about The Who, one of the most electrifying and experimental British bands in the annals of rock ‘n’ roll; a dynamo powered by internal rivalries and self-destructive behaviour; a band whose guitarist and songwriter was an East End Jean-Paul Sartre, whose lead singer was an ex-sheet-metal worker whose voice sounded like in was forged in the selfsame factory; whose bassist registered on the Richter Scale, and whose drummer went out drinking with Oliver motherfucking Reed. A group who, even in a state of nuclear grade meltdown, were impossibly entertaining.

In other words, ‘The Who: The Kids Are Alright’ could just have featured an hour and three quarters of Pete Townsend smashing his guitar into a Marshall amp while Keith Moon kicked seven bells of his drum kit and it would automatically have been one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll films ever made. That it bothers with the talking heads stuff – let alone the iconic Woodstock performance of “See Me, Feel Me” from ‘Tommy’, or an astounding account of “A Quick One While He’s Away” from The Rolling Stones’ ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus’ – just kicks the whole thing up a notch.

Here’s some measure of how good The Who were at their best: the aforementioned ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus’ was intended as a film showcasing The Rolling Stones (with guests) to be followed by a tour. Sets were built and the whole production was shot to emulate a carnival atmosphere. There was only one problem: The Who turned in a performance so vibrant, so theatrical, so together that they showed up The Stones as lethargic and by-the-numbers. The project was hastily shelved and it’s thanks to Stein’s film that The Who’s showstopper finally got its day in the sun.

Other cracking performances: “My Generation” on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour from 1967, where the band’s instrument-smashing tendencies are indulged to the max; a suitably raw account of “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere” on Ready, Steady, Go in 1965, with stereotypical 60s zoom-heavy camerawork; and “Baba O’Riley” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, performed live at Shepperton Studios in 1978 especially for the film. Elsewhere, mimed performances for Beat Club are notable for Keith Moon taking the piss and Roger Daltry looking bored. An interview with a po-faced young intellectual for the same show has a clearly zoned-out Townsend answer a rambling and barely coherent question with a cursory “Uh, yeah”.

Other interviews are drawn from BBC’s 2nd House and A Whole Scene Going, and footage shot at band members’ houses, including a straight-faced bit of banter between Moon and fellow percussionist Ringo Starr at Moon’s Malibu pad, and a surreal short piece filmed at John Entwistle’s Gloucestershire mansion house which sees him machine-gunning gold records to the strains of the magnificently hateful “Success Story” from ‘The Who By Numbers’.

And that’s not the only purely bonkers moment Stein unearths: there’s the slapstick promo film “Cobwebs and Strange” wherein The Who pursue a robotic Moon around an abandoned factory (yes, you did read that right. No, I’m not using narcotics); Steve Martin and Moon riffing off each other in an OTT rock-star-trashes-hotel-room skit; and a comedy sketch structured around the definitely non-comedic single “Happy Jack”.

But the jewel in the crown is the extended interview sequence that Stein partitions out through the film. It dates from 1973 and sees the band entire interviewed at the end of a live performance by Russell Harty, one of the most unctuous, prissy and self-regarding chat show hosts of the day. It adds up to 10 minutes or so of mayhem in which Harty struggles to retain his composure as The Who bicker and talk over each other, Moon strips down to his smalls and tears the arm off Townsend’s shirt, Townsend responds in kind, and Moon effortlessly reverses the interview process, subjecting Harty to his own brand of tossed-off verbiage. 

Naturally, given how frequently The Who were at each other’s throats, cracks often appear. “Four more horrible blokes making a horrible noise you couldn’t imagine,” Daltry grunts at one point, only half-joking. “You’re not the same desperate young man you were ten years ago, are you?” some faceless pundit vox pops Townsend. “No, I’m a desperate old fart,” he shoots back, “but not a boring one.” Stein slam cuts to a typically blistering live performance. Point taken.

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