Stein, reached while driving the streets of San Francisco, figures he's been labeled as reclusive--a rock-doc Howard Hughes--merely because "there weren't many opportunities to do interviews, I guess," he says, laughing. "I did a lot when the movie came out, but since that time, I've been being treated for post-traumatic stress syndrome, so I'm just re-emerging after 25 years of therapy." He laughs again at the notion that he is a Mystery Man. The dude's quite happy to be found. It's just, well, nobody ever came looking for him.
But, till now, why should they? The Kids Are Alright has existed for years only as a bastardized TV version or an out-of-print videotape, and a shoddy one at that. Certainly, it deserved better: The Kids Are Alright ranks among the most anarchic and bravest rock documentaries ever made; it's not a historical document, as Stein often says, but a "hysterical document." It's a riotous, delirious and, in retrospect, touching mishmash of footage: The film opens on the set of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1967, as Keith Moon's drum kit explodes after "My Generation" and ostensibly ruins Pete Townshend's hearing forever, and moves from 1960s TV-show lip-synchs to '70s-era interviews with a bitter Townshend and a playful Moon and finally climaxes with a pungent "Won't Get Fooled Again."
In 90 minutes, it captures 15 years' worth of tumultuous history: The Who as trend-setting Mods bopping out R&B standards to packed nightclubs of tuxedoed teens; as rock-video forerunners preening for young directors making goofy little promos; as affluent assholes trashing hotel rooms for shits and giggles; as arena-rock deities rendering the stoners deaf, dumb and blind; as dinosaurs refusing to lie down and fossilize in the wake of punk's coming revolution.
"Hysteria over history," says Stein of his agenda in making the fans' ultimate home movie, and never before or since has a band been captured at its best and worst in a single sitting. Stein had first lionized the band from a distance with a book of photos from The Who's 1971 tour, but that didn't satisfy his cravings. In 1975, he found Townshend after the premiere of Ken Russell's film Tommy and badgered him about making a documentary; Townshend only agreed after manager Bill Curbishley thought it an idea and investment worth pursuing. It would take nearly four more years to make the movie, during which time beautiful drummer Keith Moon turned into a prematurely fat old man and died in the bottom of a bottle. By the time The Kids Are Alright premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1979, The Who appeared to be on the verge of becoming The Who Were They. The movie, condemned at the time by The New York Times as being "willfully uninformative," captured not only lightning in a bottle but an entire thunderstorm.
Yet it has somehow managed to slip through the cracks since its U.S. release in May 1979. Its gleefully disheveled, impressionistic telling of The Who's history recounted through the use of old TV clips and rare concert footage and newly staged performance pieces has been treated shabbily. The movie's been butchered for video release and television broadcast, with scenes sliced and performances sped up for time till it all felt like Alvin and the Chipmunks were playing live at Leeds. Remaining prints decayed to the point of becoming unwatchable. And for years The Who did nothing to enhance its reputation: Front man Roger Daltrey once damned Stein as an "amateur," while bassist John Entwistle re-cut the film for release in Europe after dismissing it as talky and dull and exploitive of Moon's death in September 1978. In one interview, Entwistle said he called the band's manager, Bill Curbishley, and told him "the film is a piece of shit; I've got to stop it" and threatened to file an injunction against its release.