These days, let’s face it, an original rock’n'roll story is harder to come by than ever. We’ve heard ‘em all by now; if VH1′s Behind the Music and E!’s True Hollywood Story didn’t get to our heroes first, then they’ve been recycled and repackaged by rock’s own mythmaking cults, from Hendrix, Dylan and the Beatles to Kurt Cobain, Johnny Thunders and the Velvet Underground. Which is precisely why Greg Whiteley’s New York Doll — a documentary that tells the heretofore untold story of New York Dolls bassist Arthur “Killer” Kane — is such a treasure. Simply put, this film is that rarest of things: a rock doc with something new to say, about a truly unsung shoulda-been hero.
Not that you won’t find some, shall we say, familiar themes along the way. It’s undeniable that Kane’s story could be prime Behind the Music material: a founding member of a seminal proto-punk group whose bid at fame was prematurely crushed, he took to alcohol abuse and hit “rock bottom” in an incident which involved a quart of peppermint schnapps, the use of cat furniture as a bludgeoning weapon, and a jump out of a third story window. During a harrowing year in physical therapy, he found religion (the Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-Day Saints) and settled into obscurity, until longtime Dolls superfan Morrissey gave him one last shot at his dream of a reunion. Twenty-two days after his successful return to the concert stage, Kane was dead, diagnosed too late with leukemia. You can practically hear the dramatic voice-over now.
Fortunately, however, director Whiteley is neither a rocker nor a rock historian – he’s a Mormon, who became acquainted with “The Killer” not through teenage glam fantasies but through his involvement with the church. And that means that New York Doll’s perspective is remarkably fresh, eschewing all but the essentials of musical analysis and Dolls history — that’s for a different DVD — in favor of a warm, affectionate and simple portrait of the man himself.
It’s an effective approach, mostly because Arthur Kane himself is such an endearingly odd character. The opening scenes portray Kane as a humble and pious man, a devoted employee of LA’s Latter-Day Saints Family History Library, but one who still feels pangs of regret at “being demoted from rock star to schlep on the bus.” He harbors a bizarrely one-sided “feud” with David Johansen, resentful of his former bandmate’s success in Hollywood and as one-hit faux Latin pop wonder Buster Poindexter. And according to his new friends in the Mormon congregation, he is completely incapable of finishing a conversation without bringing up the New York Dolls.
On screen, Kane’s hulking presence (undimmed by the loss of his early-’70s mane) and adenoidal New Yorker whine is hilarious and lovable all at once; the scene where he arrives at his London hotel and is simply floored by the number of phones in the room could have been scripted by a lower-middle class Woody Allen. In fact, this film’s greatest strength is the way it ingratiates the viewer to Kane, a man who seems to have warmed the heart of virtually everyone whose path he crossed, without even straying too far into his past. In the brief time he shares with us, we feel privileged to know him, and when he finally gets the chance at success he never received in his youth, we rejoice right along with him. But it’s the fact that everybody already knows the ending of this story, of course, which makes the last scenes so poignant.
As bittersweet endings go, New York Doll’s is especially sweet. The big reunion at Royal Festival Hall in London is, of course, a smash; we even get to see a sort of unspoken reconciliation between Kane and Johansen, who flounces over to his old pal onstage and plants a smacker right on his lips in true high-camp fashion. And even though Kane’s newfound faith makes him stick out like a sore thumb amongst his rather less reformed partners in crime — one sequence in particular, where Johansen grills him about his religious duties backstage, is even a little hard to watch — the sense of honor and pride he feels when a fan approaches him at a publicity dinner is palpable. One might wonder what would have been had Kane caught wind of his illness early; Johansen and Sylvain are still going strong on the road, after all, and one gets the sense that Kane would have liked to have joined them. But then again, this is a man who played the Meltdown festival to widespread acclaim, only to return to his work as a librarian – the place was “understaffed,” you see. So who knows?
In any case, this film isn’t really about the Dolls’ reunion. It’s about one man, Arthur Kane, and the dream he barely lived to see come true. The poetic thing to say might be that once he stood on that stage with his old band, his life was complete; he didn’t need to go on living. Whether or not this is true, New York Doll is a profound success: a simple, quiet and unassuming film which does justice to the simple, quiet and unassuming man himself. It’s a story you’ve probably never heard before, told well. And if that alone doesn’t make it worth seeing, then frankly, I don’t know what does.
Reviewed by Zach Hoskins