In typical Who fashion, the film took about three times as long to complete as expected, but it was worth the wait. For those who love this band, The Kids Are Alright is as near to the realization of our dreams as we are likely to come. The Who were always the one band that refused to conceal its inner conflicts and torments. There's no copping out here, either. And Stein never loses sight of the fact that the music was what made it all mean anything.
In another way, too, Stein tells the real story. After the first fifteen minutes, in which we've seen Moon young and at his peak, Stein cuts to the version of ''Baba O'Riley'' shot at Shepperton in spring 1978. Moon struggles to keep up with the rest of the group – themselves looking a bit faded – which only makes their remarkable performance seem more miraculous. But there's something scary in seeing what time, rock's ultimate enemy, has done to the best drummer in the history of the music. And there's something scary in Townshend's admission that what he is now is ''a desperate old fart . . . not boring, though.''
Finally, though, it's Keith's movie. Stein shows Moon in a variety of antic stunts, from the Keystone Kops-style promo film for ''Happy Jack'' to a bizarre sadomasochistic interlude at a Hollywood porn emporium. Moon also provides the film's most sobering comment. Asked by the cameraman to tell the truth for once, an overweight, bearded and beleaguered Moon turns his eyes upward. ''The truth as you want to know it? Oh no, dear boy. No, I'm afraid you couldn't afford me.''
Stein's been accused of making no statement at all, but I think he's made a major statement about what's happened to rock in the past fifteen years – and what's happened to those who tried to follow it.
''The message is there in the last three songs – 'My Generation,' 'Won't Get Fooled Again' and 'Long Live Rock,'" Stein explains. ''When we were younger, 'My Generation' summed it all up for us, in terms of anger and self-destruction. 'Won't Get Fooled Again' is about being a generation that wanted to become a force and how we all had let ourselves down. We were the New Boss and we were the same as the old bosses. We were cynical now instead of just angry; we had gotten our way and we had fucked up.
''But at the end, I put 'Long Live Rock,' which is a basic roots type of song in the Chuck Berry mold, because that song's a celebration of rock & roll. And that's what the Who is. That in spite of fucking up, rock & roll was still something worth dreaming about, something worth fighting for, and it had been worth loving. And no matter how cynical one gets, it is 'Long live rock, we need it every nite.'"
In that sense, The Kids Are Alright stands at the opposite pole from the other great rock documentary of our era, Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz, where the audience was genuinely irrelevant; rock was no longer a matter of idealism and passion, violence and alienation. It had become a streamlined money machine, truly musical but also truly a commodity.
At the end of the film, Stein has captured the definitive ''Won't Get Fooled Again.'' Quite accidentally, as it happened. The show had closed with that song, but Stein, who was filming, didn't feel it was as ''definitive'' as he wanted. So he went backstage to try to convince a band that never did encores to do it again. ''A definitive end!'' Townshend replied facetiously. ''What would you like me to do, go out there and fall asleep while playing, or just die onstage or better yet just smash that motherfucker over the head with me guitar who keeps yelling out 'Magic Bus.'"
The song begins with Townshend in a comic rage, wiggling his hips in a true parody of his legend, leaping and grimacing in mock savagery. But when Daltrey lets loose that final scream and the lasers shut off, the lights come back up to reveal Townshend in an astounding, knees-bent leap across the width of the stage, sliding on the floor as he hits the chords. A few bars later, he's smashing his guitar, the satire gone; if he ever meant it, he means it now, as he raises his red Gibson high above his head and sacrifices it one last time. ''Sacrificed for us,'' says Jeff Stein, ''and for everything we ever wanted – and for the moment. That moment is the moment, all we ever lived for and the moment we'll always remember. For that, I'm grateful.''
Me too, but it's hard not to remember with equal clarity what comes next. Moon climbs painfully over his drum kit – which had been nailed down so he couldn't destroy it – to join the others at the front of the stage, where they wave goodbye as ''Long Live Rock'' fills the theater. As if he knew it was the last one, Keith reaches round for a hug and a kiss from each of the others, a last goodbye. And Pete Townshend, rock's once and future Sun King, stands and waves, his eyes red from the tears, while the camera pulls back one last time, to show a sea of hands raised and waving, saying goodbye for all of us to the final expression of our dream, our innocence, our vision.
The Who can duck The Kids Are Alright and the comment it makes about their career. But they'll never duck that moment, which is as close to the truth about rock & roll as anything that ever hit the screen. It's not only an emblem of the last time rock captured you; it's a symbol of the first. The last words belong to Jeff Stein.
''What sums it all up for me,'' he says, ''is that after the first time my brother and I saw the Who at the Fillmore, we walked out of the theater not caring if we got run over by the Second Avenue bus. Because we knew we would go straight to rock & roll Valhalla.''
This story is from the August 9th, 1979 issue of Rolling Stone.
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