The Reel Who

Twenty-five years later, a filmmaker comes to grips with his Kids

Stein insists, as he has for years, that no scenes of Moon were added or deleted after his death--though Who historians (Whostorians?) have noted the cutting of a single line of dialogue: the band's being asked on a television show about "the Who decade." Townshend pretends to mishear the line: "Who decayed?" he responds, before turning to Moon and saying, "They didn't all survive." Leaving it in didn't seem terribly appropriate.

Though making a film about The Who was, for Stein, the very definition of a dream come true, it also proved every bit a nightmare. The band put up its own money to make it (some $2 million, or eight times what they expected it to cost), then had a falling-out with Stein when Townshend and his mates claimed some of the footage from old TV appearances and home movies used in the film had gone missing. Stein had intended to pay deep-felt homage to his heroes, the band that ushered him safely through his own teenage wasteland, and ended up realizing too late that sometimes the very last people you ever want to meet are your idols.

"Well, when you set the controls for the heart of the sun, you can get burned, ya know?" Stein says. "It was a daunting task. I wanted to create this film to memorialize for the ages what The Who was all about, to somehow capture that energy. But it's kind of like the yeti: It's hard to bring that back alive. That chaos they channeled onstage came from a place that was real...Then after everything we went through, kind of riding that tempest, Keith passed away just as we finished. It turned the film in many ways from being perceived as this romp and celebration and crazy home movie into, I think, maybe being perceived as an epitaph. That just kinda changed the tone. We'd been through so much, and we wanted a happy ending and didn't get one."

Back when the kids were alright, and then some: The Who, before some of them died before they got old
Back when the kids were alright, and then some: The Who, before some of them died before they got old

Of the other long-reported conflicts over the making of the film, Stein will only acknowledge they're a thing of the past, something he cannot and will not talk about.

"It's just been a long time," he says. "I think there were differences of opinion, perhaps, about how the project should be made, if it were going to get made. I don't know. It's so long ago. Everybody's decided nobody remembers anymore what exactly happened. The mists of time have cleared away all the rancorous fumes." He pauses. "I hope."

Stein had little to do with the new DVD, which features a new interview with a surprisingly reflective Daltrey and a wealth of other goodies; the restoration was the work instead of preservationist John Albarian. Stein became involved only after Townshend's longtime friend Martin Lewis, who had restored A Hard Day's Night for Miramax, tracked down his pal Stein and got him to do a commentary and a separate interview for the bonus disc. "Jeff was a little wary, only because he had had a bumpy passage, and he doesn't talk about it much," Lewis says. "He's gracious in the extreme and very proud of his work, but it had been very bumpy." In the end, Stein agreed to participate only because he thought it would be a "good way to bookend the experience" of making The Kids Are Alright.

Stein had not seen the film for some 20 years. He had moved on, becoming a music-video director when MTV was a fetus; among his works are seminal videos for Billy Idol ("Rebel Yell"), the Cars ("You Might Think") and Tom Petty ("Don't Come Around Here No More"). Now, he's about to join the reality-TV frenzy, having just signed on to work for the production company run by acclaimed documentarian R.J. Cutler (The War Room, Freshman Diaries). He also has plans to make movies out of works by authors James Ellroy and Walter Mosley, though they're tentative for now--something in the distant future, unlike that first movie that lies in the distant past.

"When I see The Kids Are Alright again, I obviously have a lot of serious flashbacks," he says. "I bring a lot to it, and it's not all baggage. I've jettisoned pretty much all of it--the overwhelming emotion. God, I try to wipe the slate clean and just see it with fresh eyes and as somebody careening through the experience. But I'm overwhelmed by the sadness and loss at times--of Keith, of John now compounding that, of that whole time and place. Being an old flag-waver, if I ever did anything for the cause, I guess it was capturing those moments so they would live on."

Stein is asked whether he stopped listening to The Who after the movie was finished--if he needed a break, or perhaps whether the music provided a painful reminder of how a happy experience had turned so bittersweet.

"Oh, I still needed a fix on occasion," he says, laughing. "I just had to reduce the dosage."

So, you weren't scared straight?

"No. But now, I'm back to OD'ing. Now I can roll the windows down and put it on max and roll down the highway screaming."

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