New York Doll (2006)

“Arthur is such a beautiful, brilliant, droll, but, like, sensitive cat, you know. And his inner core is strong that he can stand up for himself.”
— David Johansen talking about New York Dolls bassist Arthur “Killer” Kane

Documentarian Greg Whitely, himself a Mormon, met New York Dolls bassist Arthur “Killer” Kane at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Family History Center in Los Angeles, where Kane serviced copy machines thirty years after the Dolls imploded. What started out as a small documentary on the uncomfortable but engaging Kane turned into a full-scale revelation, tracking Kane’s improbable journey of rock ‘n’ roll redemption.

As Dolls’ biographer Nina Antonia (Too Much Too Soon) describes him, “Arthur couldn’t breathe and play bass at the same time.” He would take a giant breath and “bang out a bunch of notes,” as Dolls front-man David Johansen further explains. Photographer Bob Gruen described the awkward Kane’s stage presence as that of a “giant Frankenstein.” But it quickly becomes obvious in the opening minutes of New York Doll that Kane is a gentle soul.

As the film begins, we are introduced to Kane on May 12, 2004, where he has been, in his own words, “demoted from rock star to schlep on the bus.” Living in Los Angeles, he works at the Mormon temple three days a week — a far cry from his lowest point in 1989 when he threw himself out of a three story window. During his year-long struggle to walk again after the fall, Kane was lying in bed one day with a Bible and a TV Guide, and in the TV Guide was an ad for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Kane called the advertised number to have the Book of Mormon sent to him. Kane ultimately decides to pray for affirmation of the Book of Mormon, and he describes the answer he receives as “an LSD trip from the Lord.”

This lonely but personally fulfilling life Kane chose eventually led him to Mormon 9:21 in the Book of Mormon, where he found inspiration to keep his hopes of a Dolls reunion alive. That passage reads: “Whoso believeth in Christ, doubting nothing whatsoever, he shall ask the Father, in the name of Christ, it shall be granted him.” And Kane’s dream reached fulfillment with help from unexpected players.

As the curator of the 2004 edition of the Meltdown Festival, The Smiths’ Morrissey reached out to the three living members of the Dolls to reunite for the show. Morrissey’s affection for the band is obvious, but earnest. At one point the former president of the New York Dolls fan club describes his love for them this way: “Some bands grab you and they never let you go and, no matter what they do, they can never let you down… the Dolls were that for me.”

Johansen, Syl Sylvian, Billy Murcia, Johnny Thunders, and Kane created punk by combining their self-destructive approach to life with glam (both in their music and their androgyny) and a sleazy Stones’ approach to rock & roll. Drummer Murcia died on their first tour of England in 1972, and guitarist Thunders died in a New Orleans hotel room, allegedly of an overdose, in 1991. Murcia’s replacement back in 1972, Jerry Nolan, died of a stroke also in 1991, just a few months after playing a tribute concert for Thunders.

The proto-punk glam rockers’ mythical influence is far-reaching, as evidenced by not only Morrissey, but the long list of both American and English punks who gush about the band in New York Doll. The list includes Chrissie Hynde (Pretenders), Sir Bob Geldof (Boomtown Rats), Clem Burke (Blondie), and Iggy Pop (Stooges). Many of the interviews seem to take place the day of the Meltdown show, which is tracked in the movie from first rehearsal to completion.

Whitely does a great job of capturing the drama and emotion of the reunion. The tension between Kane and Johansen is intensified by Johansen’s no-show at the first rehearsal, and Kane’s wide-eyed wonder at the size and amenities of his London hotel room for the Meltdown Festival is touching — “There’s more stuff in this room than I have in my apartment… I’ve got a bunch of junk.” Johansen’s prick-ish pre-show attitude towards Kane’s Mormon faith is as awkward an exchange as Kane’s tender pre-show prayer, where he asks that “the spirits of Johnny, Billy, and Jerry” be with them on stage that evening.

The story, though, is not only about the excitement and trepidation Kane lives through to realize his greatest wish. The film explores how Kane adjusts to not only being back on stage, but how he adjusts to returning to his Los Angeles life after the show. It is a moving portrait of a unique and admirable individual who rose to modest stardom in one of the most influential bands of the 20th century, was consumed by his excesses and dashed dreams, found comfort in religion, and longed for both recognition and closure. New York Doll is a rare documentary that, like its subject, exceeds its modest goals.