The New York Dolls are considered, and rightly so, perhaps the seminal punk rock band. Six ugly New Yorkers done up in fishnet and mascara, playing music that breathed much needed life into the stagnating rock and roll scene of the early 1970s. They’ve been credited as influences by everyone from the Clash to Morrissey, and are still popular some 30 years after their brief career.
Greg Whiteley’s “New York Doll” follows the post-Dolls career, if you want to call it that, of bassist Arthur “Killer” Kane. While fellow band member David Johansen went on to fame of a sort with his alter-ego Buster Poindexter and small film roles and guitarist Johnny Thunders achieved notoriety of a different sort after dying of a methadone overdose, the alcoholic Kane bottomed out in the ‘80s. His addiction to alcohol and his jealousy of the other Dolls culminated in his drunken plummet from a 3rd floor window. Seeing a commercial for the Church of Latter Day Saints, he called to order the Book of Mormon, was visited by two missionaries, and converted.
Whiteley follows Kane around at his job at the Church’s Family History Center in Los Angeles, where he regales his elderly co-workers with tales of his band days and the intricacies of playing bass guitar. Throughout the film, we also get to hear Kane and those close to him describing his plummet from stardom. Some, like former bandmates Johansen, have fond recollections even in the face of supposed animosity between the two. Others, like his ex-wife, come across as grasping and disappointed. Throughout these remembrances, musical luminaries like Mick Jones, Bob Geldof, Chrissie Hynde, and Iggy Pop sing Kane’s and the Dolls’ praises.
The high point of the film is the reuniting of the Dolls for a performance at the 2004 Meltdown Festival in London, courtesy of longtime fan Morrissey. Kane and Johansen bury the hatchet (though the latter can’t resist a few digs at Kane’s need to tithe his cut from the gig), and the surviving band members (Kane, Johansen, and guitarist Sylvain Sylvain) join for one last performance to the delight of their many fans. And I have to admit, even though I was barely out of diapers when the Dolls were in their heyday, it was great seeing them play live.
At the same time, this movie demonstrates conclusively the necessity for aging rockers to dress their age. Iggy Pop has always looked like a speed-addicted scarecrow, but Johansen looks like a corpse. Even Kane’s old “rocker” friends would do well to lose the hair dye and dog collars and maybe invest in some tweed.
But overall, “New York Doll” is an affectionate (occasionally too much so) look at Arthur Kane. One is left with the impression that the Mormons just happened to be the first religion that came along when Kane was in a receptive mood. And while his stories are amusing, it’s hard to ignore the damage alcohol has done to the man’s mental faculties.
Kane’s tale has a particularly ironic denouement, for a mere 22 days after the Meltdown Festival, he was diagnosed with leukemia and died almost immediately. A bittersweet ending for one of the sadder stories in rock history.