Sometimes it's easy to forget that rock 'n' roll used to actually piss people off. Which is why it's nice to be reminded that in some remote corners of the world -- the Walter Reade Theater at New York's Lincoln Center, to be exact -- it still has the power to annoy them mightily.
At first, the audience at Monday afternoon's New York Film Festival press screening of "The Kids Are Alright," Jeff Stein's 1979 scrapbook tribute to the Who (and one of the greatest rock 'n' roll documentaries ever made), seemed not only merely half-awake, but half-alive -- never mind that the soundtrack, which has been painstakingly buffed to new levels of majesty, was ringing out gloriously through the theater. It wasn't long before a surprisingly large handful of people, including two blue-haired patronesses of the arts in the row behind me, roused themselves from their cocoons of shock and dismay and left the theater altogether.
Plenty of people stayed, which meant they were lucky enough to take the full measure of this beautifully restored version of the picture, which is being shown as part of the New York Film Festival later this week and which is also available on DVD as of today. But the ones who didn't stick around left me pondering a nagging question: Who walks out on the Who?
Worse yet, as the credits rolled, a distinct Bronx cheer arose from the front of the theater. Who boos the Who? Particularly at a festival screening when the director is present in the theater, as Stein was?
I'm admittedly biased: I sometimes forget that I live in a world in which not all breathing, sentient human beings adore the Who. But then, that's their problem, not mine. And it's certainly not Stein's. In the mid-1970s Stein, a young Who fan who had put out a book of photographs of the band's 1971 tour, began pestering the band, asking lead guitarist and chief songwriter Pete Townshend if he could make a documentary about them. In an apparent attempt to get the pesky kid off his back, Townshend told Stein that if he could raise the money, the band would allow him to make the film. Somehow, Stein pulled the financing together. And when he showed the band a 17-minute promo reel of some old Who footage he'd collected, they seemed to like it even more than he'd hoped. "There was a lot of screaming and carrying on and damaging the screening room," Stein said in the press conference following the screening. "I thought, 'This works.'"
Stein's movie seems to frustrate some people, even quite a few Who fans. A collection of old television footage from the band's early days, clips from interviews with the band and live performance footage (including from one spectacular live performance shot by Stein), "The Kids Are Alright" sometimes feels unshaped and wild. It may be informal, but it's not formless. Rock documentaries tend to cut their subjects down to size; "The Kids Are Alright" asserts that its subject can't be contained.
"Back then, I just didn't think there'd be another band like the Who," Stein said. He wanted to memorialize them, to piece together what he calls a "keepsake." "I definitely think you can feel their power to this day," he said.
Rock 'n' roll belongs to everyone today. It's used to sell everything from cars to fast food to cheap, ugly clothing; there's nothing shocking or revolutionary about it. And yet, what does it mean when the sound of the Who, soaring through a theater at a decibel level that's (almost) as high as it was meant to and ought to be heard, still has the power to send the squares packing? The Who belong to everybody -- a smaller group than you might have imagined.