Watching the mild-mannered, seemingly befuddled Arthur Kane sitting quietly in the back of a Los Angeles municipal bus, it is impossible to imagine that this 55-year-old librarian was once among the most influential figures in rock history. During the early 1970s, Arthur “Killer” Kane was part of The New York Dolls, a glam rock force who inspired a generation of musicians with their outrageous stage performances and decibel-splitting tunes.
Kane’s journey from the apex of rock fame to the back of a Los Angeles bus and then back to the stage is the subject of “New York Doll,” a fine documentary which earns mileage on the charm and sincerity of its subject while losing points for occasional lapses into evasiveness.
When The New York Dolls split in 1975, Kane’s career began its tailspin. He moved from New York to Los Angeles and made several attempts to begin new bands. All of them failed. To his never-ending angst, former Doll David Johansen enjoyed more success as a single act, first in his Buster Poindexter persona and then as a movie actor. Wrecked by alcoholism and depression, Kane saw his marriage end, his finances dry up, and his hopes disappear into a botched suicide attempt.
Redemption came from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a.k.a. the Mormons. Answering an advertisement, he was visited by missionaries and found his path to salvation. It was a somewhat low-budget path, including a part-time job as a librarian in the church’s Family History Center library, but it was enough to give him the chance to begin anew.
In the spring of 2004, Kane was startled to receive an invitation from Morrisey, who was hosting that year’s Meltdown Festival in London, to reunite with surviving Dolls Johansen and Sylvain Sylvain (the other band members, Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan, had since passed away). Incredibly, his new church family was highly supportive of his rock return, providing Kane with funds to get his guitar out of a local pawnshop so he could perform again after a very long hiatus.
Filmmaker Greg B. Whiteley offers Kane as a gentle soul who was wrecked by forces beyond his control. The thornier issues of his past are either brushed aside or not addressed, which leaves considerable gaps in his life story. Likewise, much of Kane’s music is absent – the band’s importance is hard to understand when only a few songs are played repeatedly. It would appear there is only TV segment of the band in performance (from British television) and it is played endlessly throughout the movie. Thus, anyone who is unfamiliar with Kane and his band will probably come away from the film still unfamiliar with them.
But to its credit, “New York Doll” has plenty to recommend, especially in the mix of good (Kane) and not-good (the incredibly repulsive Johansen). Kane’s sad eyes and mournful voice is often heartbreaking – he clearly enjoys his personal resurrection via Mormonism yet the pain of the lost chance at rock stardom obviously haunts him. Likewise, he is visibly ashamed of his poverty. When he finds his London hotel room prior to the concert, he ruefully wishes he could abandon his tiny LA apartment and stay in the hotel for the rest of his days.
As for Johansen, the word is “Ugh!” He skips the first day of the reunion rehearsals and arrives late on the second day without apologies or explanations. He looks like he is a minute away from death but acts like he is still a 21-year-old stud. Johansen derides Kane’s decision to tithe his fee from the concert, but Kane gets the better of the exchange by explaining his concept of tithing is closer to payer “an agent’s fee.”
Various rock legends including Morrissey, Bob Geldof and Iggy Pop offer their thoughts on Kane, but seeing Kane back on stage in concert makes all of the talk meaningless. While he returns as an older, perhaps wiser man, the adoration of his fans helps to erase the years of pain he endured in solitude and squalor. When he takes his final bow at the concert’s end, it is difficult not to applaud his long-overdue return.