Life after the limelight has faded can be painful. Yet Judge Bill Gibron argues that you'll find nothing but joy in this incredibly moving documentary on Arthur "Killer" Kane.
Sometimes, there are second chances.
They were notorious around New York City, but beyond the boundaries of their boroughs beginnings, no one much cared. They went on to burn as brightly as any cult act could and then die out like those proverbial moths in the fickle flame of fame. As an influence, they were huge. As an actual band, they were bawdy, brave…and mostly broke. When they finally disintegrated, it seemed to rip the heart directly out of several band members. Some struggled on (and succeeded on their own) while the rest died off, one by one. Lost among the legacy of the New York Dolls, their decadent rock and roll a forerunner to the future of the punk movement, was bass player Arthur "Killer" Kane. It was this big blond Frankenstein who started the group and it was he who endured the most personal pain when the inevitable split sent everyone off in their own direction. For 30 years, Kane dreamed of the day when he could reunite with his musical mates. Though he was twisted and turned by the hands of fate, at his core, Arthur Kane was a New York Doll, and he knew he always would be.
This makes Greg Whiteley one of the luckiest men in the entire Mormon faith. After moving to L.A. and finding a church to belong to, he befriended a tall, balding man with a rather lost look in his eyes. It turned out that the laid-back librarian from the Family History Center, the seemingly fragile being with a dense, determined gaze in his eyes was a former rock star—and not just any pop idol, but Arthur "Killer" Kane, the infamous bassists for the equally notorious New York Dolls. Decades of self-destructive behavior had ground its grooves into his face and physique. Yet it wasn't just alcohol addiction that led to his eventual conversion. Kane was obsessed with his past, convinced he had missed his chance at rock-and-roll superstardom. He seethed at the mainstream success of Dolls singer David Johansen, both as an actor and in his "Buster Poindexter" lounge act persona. He held the ex-lead singer responsible for his own miserable lot. He eventually hit rock bottom (including mandatory wife beating and suicide attempt) after seeing his former friend on TV. A leap from a three-story window left Kane destroyed and he spent a year relearning the basics of living. Once semi-successfully rehabilitated, he plotted his next move. An ad in TV Guide offering a free Book of Mormon attracted his attention, and it wasn't long before Kane was a crusader for John Smith and Brigham Young.
All of this provides Whiteley with what is easily one of the best documentary footings ever created for the genre. It's a sad, exuberant story that more or less creates itself. All one has to do is point the camera and not screw up…and that's exactly what the director does all throughout New York Doll. One of the most meaningful films ever created on what life is like for those long gone from the glimmer of fame's limelight, the story of Arthur Kane is a concrete microcosm for the meanness inherent in the music industry. Bands like The Beatles or U2 are flukes, enterprises that solider on with a seemingly endless supply of public adoration. The truth is that the vast majority of acts make their mark (if any) and then slowly slide away into the awfulness of oblivion. Some might have a few bucks to show for it in the end, while others go from gods to clods in a fraction of their lives. The Dolls barely made it past cult status before imploding. All the musician had to show for his time in the trenches were a few publicity stills and an ever-fading memory.
The film's operating narrative of how mega-Dolls fan Morrissey went about reuniting the existing members of his favorite band is intriguing, especially since Moz and his old school mates (including Bob Geldof, Chrissie Hynde, and Mick Jones) make the glam kings' link to punk's paternity very clear. The Dolls inspired dozens of bands—as a matter of fact, they still do—and yet it is clear that none of that reverence reached down to the individual members. When Kane hears that a possible reunion is on, it's not a manager who informs him, a member of the music press, or even his old band mates. He learns of the possibility through an e-mail, and has to call the former Smith himself (the two were acquaintances from the L.A. scene) to confirm the concert. But that's not even the biggest step for this troubled soul. Barely making a living, Kane has pawned many of his bass guitars and he barely has the money to pay off the loan. Luckily, his fellow Mormons know how much this performance means to him and, as we watch him eventually reclaim a part of his past, we learn that several members gave him the cash to get his instruments back.
The link to faith is fundamental to New York Doll, not just the flat rate reality of Mormonism. Indeed, what Kane is living on is a belief beyond God or Gospel. He is convinced that, as a matter of fate, he is destined to get back with his band mates and reclaim their place in the current celebrity of post-millennial pop culture. Mormonism is just the means of keeping himself straight and alive. It's the deity of the Dolls that drives him, the sole source that keeps him moving each and every day. Bass in hand, Kane prepares to travel to New York and rehearse with his former friends, and the look in his eyes is electric. This is truly wish fulfillment at its most emotional. To go any further then, to push past the jitters of seeing people he hasn't spoken to or shared a stage with in 30 years, would ruin the rest of New York Doll. Whiteley's witnessing of Kane's crusade is powerful, sad, celebratory, and shocking. Indeed, this film has one of the most deceptively brilliant buildups ever. There's a twist at the end, something this critic couldn't have anticipated even with a working knowledge of the band's history in hand. If there was ever a filmic full circle of one incredible life, New York Doll would be it. This is one of the best rock docs ever made.
Hats off to Visual Entertainment for bringing this amazing movie to the DVD format. Presented in a 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image, the visual aspects of New York Doll are crystal clear. Whiteley used a handheld digital camera to capture his subject as he did the normal things in life, like ride the bus or walk the streets, and the images are exceptional. Similarly, the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is remarkable. We get the usual street noise during the interviews, but the performances are perfectly polished, their sonic sincerity easily captured by the home theater elements. As for extras, the added content is minimal, yet meaningful. Since he played such an important part in Kane's chances of regrouping with the Dolls, Morrissey's entire interview—all 25 minutes of it—is offered. Love him or hate him, but the Moz man knows his music, and his insights are outstanding. Whiteley shows up and gives us a brief—10 minute or so—overview of how he came to the project. Finally, David Johansen performs a classical number, a fitting elegy to a remarkable moment in rock history.
The New York Dolls defined the post-peace era movement in music better than any other act. They resisted easy description as they dragged rock back to its raw, driven roots. Naturally, with any kind of cosmic uproar, there had to be a few causalities. What Greg Whiteley stumbled upon was one such victim, along with the final fulfillment of the man's main wish. For Arthur "Killer" Kane, being a Doll once again was all he lived for. Seeing his prayers finally answered is a truly uplifting experience…almost religious, you might say.
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