New York Doll
directed by Greg Whiteley
(First Independent, 2005)

"I left him ... and that's when he jumped out the kitchen window."

It's lines like that, from the ex-wife of New York Dolls bassist Arthur "Killer" Kane, that easily could have turned the documentary of his life into a second-rate VH1: Behind the Music episode.

Instead, it's one of the most bittersweet, inspiring movies you'll see this year. And the soundtrack? It rocks.

Back in the early '70s, the New York Dolls blasted onto the music scene with a style -- both musically and sartorially -- that would lead happily to punk and, less happily but more lucratively, to the knockoff big-hair bands of the '80s.

David Johansen fronted the Dolls, but Killer Kane held the bottom line -- immobile on stage, long blond hair hanging down, playing in spurts ("He couldn't breathe and play bass at the same time," Johansen says with a smile. "He'd take a deep breath and run off a bunch of notes.")

But then the Dolls imploded a few years later and Kane, after a few brief attempts at prolonging the music, disappeared into a 30-year haze of alcohol, depression and poverty.

Over in England, however, Steven Patrick Morrissey, who would grow up to lead The Smiths, never forgot him. Thirty years later, Morrissey is putting together a one-off concert in London, and decides to see if he can coax the three remaining Dolls to perform. But where's Kane? In one of the least likely of places: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints' Family Center.

Laid up for a year after his drunken leap from the kitchen window, Kane became first interested in the Mormon church, and then deeply, sincerely devoted to it.

Embittered by Johansen's relative success in music and by the gazillion dollars earned by bands who ripped off the Dolls, Kane now wears dress shirts and ties to work and is a dead ringer for British actor Bill Nighy, balding pate and all. So when Morrissey comes calling in 2004, Kane can't quite believe it.

"For 30 years I've been ignored, living in obscurity and told I'm a loser," Kane tells filmmaker Greg Whiteley, a fellow Mormon who'd never heard of the New York Dolls before befriending Kane.

Whiteley follows Kane's tentative return journey from the filing room to the stage, interviewing everyone from his library colleagues to Kane's bishop to Sir Bob Geldolf and Chrissie Hynde. No one is condescended to, and everyone is genuinely cheering for this sweet, bewildered, somewhat damaged man who, until now, hasn't even been able to free his guitars from the pawn shop.

The concert footage will blow you away, Whiteley cutting back and forth between old concert footage and the 2004 Dolls performing the same song -- with no loss of their menacing camp. And the end of the movie, whether the Dolls are new to you or not, will smack you right between the eyes.

"When an artist or group catches you at the right time, and you never let them go, and they can never disappoint you," Morrissey says, "the Dolls were that for me."

New York Doll will be that for you, too.

review by
Jen Kopf

6 December 2008

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