New York Doll
2006Director: Greg Whiteley
Cast: David Johansen, Arthur “Killer” Kane, Sylvain Sylvain
n the annals of the rockumentary genre, New York Doll seems like something of an anomaly. There is no denying its assiduous attempts at engagement, but, underneath all of the smudged lipstick and spike-heeled stilettos, lies a premise as flat as an over-worn pair of tight leather pants. New York Doll, however, wears its genre-tag with honor, and where most other rockumentaries-by-the-numbers would all to soon surrender to the prosaic hilarity of a group of middle-aged rock star wannabe's struggling for 80 minutes, New York Doll somehow manages to pack a heart in there.
Even without an actual story to justify its conception, the New York Dolls had plenty going for them to warrant a bona fide movie of their own. Despite surviving for only two studio records, what the Dolls lacked in musical prowess they more than made up for in visual bestiality. Once known as the definitive proto-glam-punk ensemble, the Dolls almost single-handedly stretched the stylistic conventions of their time to the very limit—as some would say, Gary Glitter with bite. And if this sounds all "dope, revolution, and fucking in the streets,” well, it isn’t. New York Doll wears its glitter and androgynous punk rock more obliquely.
Like all good stories, New York Doll was close to not happening. In this case, the turning point came in early 2004. When Morrissey, then curator of Meltdown, a yearly art music festival in Britain, called up David Johansen—one of the three remaining members of the Dolls’ original lineup—to convince the Dolls to reunite for a one-off gig (with members of Guns N' Roses and The Libertines to help out), it seemed like the perfect opportunity for documentarian Greg Whiteley to catch up with fellow Mormon and Doll’s bassist Arthur “Killer” Kane. But the story of “Killer Kane” proved to be more than what he bargained for.
Downshifting from stadium-sized punk rock mayhem to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saint’s Family History Center library in Los Angeles, Kane is that very rarest of characters. With his conversion from gender-bending, make-up wearing style god to pushing carts in a Mormon temple three days a week to his unexpected death from leukemia, this is a story only a more ambitious Hollywood script could dream up. What started as a pitch for something little more than a small documentary turned out to be a compelling exposition, a sad portrayal of a man in search of a peaceful place that was hard to come by through staggering success.
As with any true rockumentary, New York Doll compiles its narrative through interview footage with old friends, acquaintances, critics, and fans. That the Dolls’ influence is mythically far-reaching is evident in the long list of American and British punks and rockers paying tribute to their legacy. Many of them—Chrissie Hynde (The Pretenders), Bob Geldof (Boomtown Rats), and Iggy Pop (Stooges), to name but a few—appear in New York Doll muttering words of love about the band.
The most touching moments of the movie don’t belong to Kane’s tender recollections of his conversion to devoted Mormonism, but in the way Whiteley plays up the tension and emotions of the band’s first gig in thirty years and their awkward reunion leading up to the event. It is touching, seeing a befuddled Kane awkwardly pose with his bandmates, picking up a guitar for the first time in God-knows-how-long and witnessing his bewilderment at the amenities in his London hotel room (“There's more stuff in this room than I have in my apartment”). For some, this comes as old news, but for the rest of us, seeing Kane’s modest, human side is as affecting as it should be.
Not all is rock ‘n roll, though. As directed by a Mormon, the movie falls prey to an overrepresentation of Mormonism that, while never devolving into indoctrination, leaves you pondering the relevance of some of the interviews included here. When listening to some of Kane’s “life coaches” speak, it’s a bit like watching a child in kindergarten being scrutinized by his teacher and assessed for proper behavior.
While it’s true that New York Doll is one primarily for the fans, its humanity frequently transcends classification. As Dolls' biographer Nina Antonia describes him, Kane “was and still remains rock’s only living statue.” And I’m sure he wouldn’t want to be remembered any other way.