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The Kids Are Alright: Special Edition

Back in the '70s, New York teenager Jeff Stein wanted to make a film about The Who for one simple reason — to prove that they were the greatest rock band in the world. The jury will be out for some time on the matter, but there's little question that the London group ranked among an elite quartet of British acts that paved a road from obscure club gigs to elaborate studio recordings and full-blown arena rock: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, and Led Zeppelin. Of course, the Beatles sold the most records. The Stones have had the greatest longevity. Zeppelin laid the groundwork for modern FM radio. So why, according to Stein, was The Who the greatest? Clearly, it can't be quantified. In fact, the band's devoted followers at the time seemed to be in awe of not only the group's music, but their personas as well. No member was a mere functionary, relegated to the rhythm section while others basked in the spotlight. Actually, there was no lead instrument of any kind — soft-spoken singer Roger Daltrey always considered himself a lyrical interpreter rather than rather than a rock star; bassist John Entwistle played melodic lines as if he were on lead guitar; guitarist Pete Townshend windmilled thunderous chops as if he were on drums; and flamboyant drummer Keith Moon dryly described the other members of the group as his "backing band." Perhaps these inversions are what made The Who so appealing, both personally and musically. And just as traditional musical roles within the band were ignored, the musical tropes of the day were discarded as well. After mastering the three-minute pop-song by the end of the '60s, Pete Townshend abandoned it with Tommy and Quadrophenia, and changed the music industry forever.

And yet, how are The Who remembered? As the band that smashed up their instruments on television. As a crew that was notorious for wrecking hotel rooms whilst on tour. As the group who set the Guinness World Record for "World's Loudest Band," a feat achieved at Madison Square Garden when their equipment's sonic output rivaled that of a turbine engine. Self-described Who fanatic Stein knew there was much more to the band than that — and thus, while barely out of high school and with no filmmaking experience, he approached The Who with the idea of creating a movie, largely from clips languishing in film and video archives around the world. The Queens-born lad encountered resistance from the band, but he was able to complete enough research to compile a 17-minute demo reel. Stein screened it for the group and found them receptive (actually, they nearly wrecked the screening room in drunken tomfoolery), after which The Kids Are Alright was officially greenlit. Four years of research unearthed a small gold mine — TV programs like "Shindig," "Ready Steady Go," "Beat Club," and "The Smothers Brothers"; early footage of the band when they were an R&B act known as The Detours; vanguard "promotional" shorts created back in the '60s, long before MTV; interview footage from a variety of sources; the Woodstock concert; and the Rolling Stones' "lost" TV project "Rock and Roll Circus," which never aired. And most elements were "new" in a sense — culled from a pre-video, pre-Internet age when so much media was considered disposable, Stein was collecting material that had been seen by the public just once before, normally in just one country. He was unsure what to expect when The Kids Are Alright debuted in New York on June 15, 1979. He should not have been surprised — Who fans lined up around the block to get their first intimate look at a band they had come to know largely through albums and radio, live performances and magazine articles. The ability to travel with the band through its history — to see them perform, hear them speak, watch them clown about — bridged a gap that had long stood between rock fans and their idols. MTV would arrive just a few years later, forcing many more pop acts to cross the same divide, and often with far less musicianship.

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Of course, die-hard Who fans have already seen The Kids Are Alright. Most have a copy in their possession — a VHS edition arrived in 1982, with the same transfer ported to Laserdisc not long thereafter. It's been a de rigueur item, taking pride-of-place next to the latest CD remasters, and possibly an original Live at Leeds vinyl pressing with the enclosed memorabilia in the jacket. But it's also been something of a disappointment. It was inexplicably shortened by nine minutes, the bulk extracted from "A Quick One," the mini-opera performed in its entirety on "Rock and Roll Circus." The original video and film sources never were in good shape, and the fly-by-night filmmakers were in no position to consider any sort of restoration project. And while The Who is meant to be heard in glorious stereo (or even quadraphonic audio, which Townshend hoped to establish with Quadrophenia), the audio sources on the VHS and LD have been substandard, never sounding as deep, clear, and rich as they should. Thankfully, Jeff Stein notes that he's barely been able to meet Who fans over the past several years without being asked "When is The Kids Are Alright going to be on DVD?" A disc was briefly issued by BMG in 2001 with little enhancement, but soon after Pioneer acquired the video rights and a full-fledged digital reassessment was planned. Much of this process can be seen in the short documentary "Miracle Cure: Restoring the Film for DVD" (40 min.), which headlines Disc Two of Pioneer's special-edition. DVD producer John Albarian and others discuss how they were given little more than the retail VHS as a starting point, and how in many cases they painstakingly went back to the original materials Stein located in the '70s.

Further enhancements are noted in "Trick of the Light: Audio Showdown" (6 min.) and "Getting in Tune: Video Showdown" (5 min.), two restoration demos that compare the Kids Are Alright VHS to the new DVD material — at times, the results are breathtaking, and a testament to the dedication of those who worked on the Pioneer disc (all come across as unabashed Who fans as well, talking about the band members by first name, as true fans tend to do). Jeff Stein and Roger Daltrey contribute extensive interviews (each about 30 min.), a special section highlights John Entwistle's bass playing, and an interactive map of central London documents important historical locations in the band's history. Two trivia challenges offer Easter eggs — the first a brief radio promo by Ringo Starr for the film, while the second is a real treat: the anthemic "Who Are You" remixed in room-filling Dolby Digital 5.1 with a video montage (kill the lights for this one and sit in the sweet spot). Disc Two is topped off by the Shepperton Studios renditions of "Baba O'Reilly" and "Won't Get Fooled Again" in multi-angle format. Meanwhile, back on Disc One is the restored film in its entirely with a commentary from Jeff Stein. A special subtitle track helpfully notes the date and location of each archive segment, while audio comes in Dolby 2.0 Stereo, DTS 5.1, and Dolby Digital 5.1 options. Dual-DVD keep-case.
—JJB



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