You needn’t be a fan of rock and roll to be both amused and moved by this documentary on Arthur “Killer” Kane, the bass player for the early 1970s band the New York Dolls, who were a forerunner of the whole punk scene and seemed on the verge of major success before they disbanded in a haze of drugs, alcohol and acrimony in 1975. Though Kane was luckier than some others of the players (several died quite young), his follow-up musical efforts were failures, and he soon spiraled downward into obscurity and self-destructive conduct until 1989, when he converted to Mormonism and found a new life working in the church’s Family History Center Library in Los Angeles. But Kane never gave up a dream of reuniting with the surviving band members (even though he’d been forced to pawn his guitars and wasn’t at all well disposed toward former lead singer David Johansen, who’d gone on to win fame under the alter-ego of Buster Poindexter and whose success Kane resented).
But out of the blue came an invitation from long-time Dolls fan Morrissey, who was putting together London’s 2004 Meltdown, for Kane to join Johansen and Sylvain Sylvain, the third remaining band member (along, of course, with some young replacement players) for a reunion appearance at the festival. Greg Whiteley, a Brigham Young University grad who’d recently earned a filmmaking degree and had met Kane at an LDS church in L.A., decided to record the now almost courtly, recessive and deeply religious Kane’s journey from his decision to get his guitar out of hock with the help of his friends, through the New York rehearsal sessions (and the tense reunion with Johansen) and the London gig.
The result is “New York Doll,” a picture that’s suspenseful–since one never knows, until the very last moments, how things are going to turn out–but also heartwarming and more than a little poignant. It certainly doesn’t downplay Kane’s eccentricity, nor does it ignore the effect his new-found religion has had on him, but neither does it turn him into a figure of fun or some sort of plaster saint–the LDS is neither ridiculed nor ostentatiously promoted here. Rather the picture is content to present Kane as a genial if oddly remote fellow who, after years of dreaming about getting back on stage with the Dolls again, was about to have his fondest wish realized–though whether that would turn out well or disastrously, either personally or in terms of the performances, was very much in doubt. Whiteley intersperses some rock history into the mix to provide needed context, as well as comments from long-time Dolls fans like Morrissey and other major rockers (as well as ordinary blokes). The picture closes with the London turn and Kane’s reception on his return to L.A.
As a production “New York Doll” isn’t the highest of tech (or the highest of fi, soundwise), but the homely, unpretentious approach suits its subject, and it certainly succeeds in making you feel for–and with–Kane as he makes his way back to the spotlight, however briefly, after nearly three decades absence. It’s a winningly bittersweet little film.