Wednesday, October 19, 2005

New York Doll review

A couple of weeks ago, I had the good fortune of seeing New York Doll, a documentary about the life of Arthur "Killer" Kane, bass player of legendary punk pioneers, the New York Dolls. The movie follows Kane, a quiet and dutiful Mormon working at a Los Angeles church genealogy library, as he gets a call from Morrissey inviting him to reunite with the other remaining members of The Dolls to perform at Royal Albert Hall in London as part of a festival that Mozza was curating.

The story of how the movie came to be is almost as compelling as Kane's own story. Young filmmaker Greg Whiteley first met Kane through the Mormon tradition of schooling other church members. At a Q&A at the screening I attended, Whiteley explained that he arrived at Kane's house for a scheduled teaching session, and noticed a framed photo of a bunch of guys in makeup, wild hair, and crazy outfits on the wall. Whiteley noticed that one of the guys in the band photo looked similar to the demure older man he'd come to teach. Kane explained that, yes, he was once a member of one of rock & roll's most storied bands, The New York Dolls. Whiteley asked Kane if he'd mind spending time on camera as they spoke together about Kane's "previous life" as a rocker. Whiteley was fortunate enough to be documenting all this as the call came to reform the Dolls, a wish that Kane had been praying for for many years, not so much to relive the band's glory days, but to somehow make peace with the other members (particularly David Johansen) with whom his open friendship wounds had never really healed.

Kane is amazingly candid with the filmmaker about the demons that haunted him during and after his tenure with The Dolls, and interviews with friends and fans of his (including Chrissie Hynde, Bob Geldof, Mick Jones, and a rare appearance by Morrissey himself) illustrate both how important this gentle man was to the evolution of Rock, and how sad it was to find him nearly penniless (church members had to chip in to get his guitars out of a local pawnshop so he could play the reunion gig) and lonely while other less talented and less sincere Dolls rip-offs were selling records and making money hand-over-fist.

The movie culminates with the reunion show in London, and scenes in which Kane marvels at the beautiful furniture in his hotel room ("This stuff is so much nicer than what I have at home...") and his worrying about his stagewear to the point that he considers wearing the hotel doorman's outfit for the show, since it's cooler than what he's brought along, are particularly fascinating and enjoyable.

Whiteley's succeeded in painting a picture of a lovely man who turned a life of confusion around to live simply, and was able to achieve his wish of mending fractured friendships. Although hardcore rock junkies probably know how this documentary finishes up, all other viewers of this film will be moved by its incredibly thought-provoking conclusion.

I'm a rock-documentary junkie, and I think I've seen them all. New York Doll is now my favorite.

The movie opens 28 October in NYC at The Angelika, and in LA at The Sunset 5 & Monica 4.

...and stay through the credits for the real treat of David Johansen's genuinely moving rendition of a Mormon hymn, perhaps his finest recorded moment in years.

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