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Idle Worship: Greg Whiteley’s “New York Doll”

Idle Worship: Greg Whiteley's "New York Doll"

“Rock history,” as we know it, fueled by the obsessiveness and stunted adolescent Romanticism of its worse (and more numerous) chroniclers, basically consists of a heap of cliches so rancid that even calling them out for their rottenness has become a bit hackneyed. The druggy, self-important musicians whose corpses litter a “Mojo” subscription don’t just die — they die for our sins, self-fulfilling prophesies ushered into necrophilic canonization by the photographers who kept busy during their living years, and the journo hacks who stay busy thereafter. Rock history movies don’t fare much better — “24 Hour Party People” may have made a claim to hipster savviness, but it couldn’t resist egregiously counting off Ian Curtis’s final moments like the stations of the cross: “The Idiot” on the turntable, “Stroszek” on TV… “Last Days,” though far too ambiguous to write off as mere mythmaking, still maintains a tone that at times reads like slapstick hagiography. Curtis and Cobain both left daughters and wives behind, but of course there’s no room for that sort of domestic real-life bummer in the standard-issue solipsistic guitar God legend.

All this said, “New York Doll,” a rather low-key documentary bio of the former New York Dolls bassist Arthur “Killer” Kane, is more admirable for what it isn’t than what it is. The film’s positioned well past the residual afterglow of fame, dealing with the thorny matter of one of rock’s man-children attempting to form an adult identity after his limelight’s fallen off. Twenty-plus years after the bitter dissolution of the legendary proto-punk Dolls, Kane, a lanky, wan fellow with a drained, husky whine, now rides the bus to a part-time job at the Church of Latter Day Saints Family Library in Los Angeles, where he’s also a worshipper. A self-described recovering alcoholic with a trail of failed bands and suicide attempts behind him, Kane has not entirely comfortably resized the expectations of his youth into a gray, humble existence. The cynical might observe that Kane’s just traded a young man’s devotion, glam rock (fast-living bacchanalia, violent early death and immortality in the pages of NME), for another false bill of goods, religion (measured, moderate life, peaceful death, and immortality in, uh, heaven); those more kindly inclined will just echo one tired punkette interviewee: “I’m always happy when someone finds something they can believe in.”

The drama, inasmuch as it exists, comes when the Dolls are invited to reunite for a London concert curated by former fan-club president Morrissey. Will Arthur’s bedrock of faith crumble like the Walls of Jericho at the proffering of groupie ass? Will Kane bury the hatchet with an eerily taut-skinned, Dr. Zaius lookalike David Johanssen? Unless you’re a hell of a Dolls fan — and if you’re not when you walk into the theater, Greg Whiteley‘s directorial debut doesn’t offer much outside of teasingly glimpsed archival footage to convert you — the musical appeal of watching a jowly, hedgehog-like Syl Sylvain and his old cohorts re-take the stage is alienatingly niche (for those inclined, the whole concert is available on DVD). But Kane’s an appealing enough figure to earn a non-fan’s affection with his little-boy-lost vulnerability and wispy sweetness, and his return-to-rock in a puffy-shirted get-up meant to recall “Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, pick your prophet” is singular enough to raise some interesting questions about the overlap of “Killer” Kane’s two great faiths.

It’s an altogether much more human affair than your standard-issue tortured rock-star knob-job, which is not to say that Whiteley’s film doesn’t find time to air out a few overripe accepted truths of its own within the margins of its slim running time. Listening to a litany of music-industry types flog the fatuous “fact” that pre-punk popular music was a bloated wasteland of “25-minute drum solos” before the Dolls (or Nirvana, or The Strokes, ad infinitum…) came along to reinvent the rock ‘n’ roll wheel is depressingly reminiscent of, well, every rock doc ever. But the filler interviews are nicely counter-measured by Morrissey, always one of pop music’s most articulate, passionate spokesmen, here speaking with a pink-bathed backdrop and canted angle camera set-up that looks strikingly close to the cover of his last album, “You Are the Quarry.” His unwavering affection for the Dolls’ music and for what it was to him as a young man is a much-needed reminder of how worthwhile, even essential, the dumb songs underneath all the morbid idolatry can be. “You can’t put your arms around a memory,” squalls former Doll Johnny Thunders (OD’d, slightly belatedly but in high picturesque squalor, in 1991), “Don’t try.” Which is exactly what “New York Doll” aims to do, and as a grasp towards one evanescent moment in rock history, it’s a not-bad rebuff to Thunders’ dead-end taunt.

[Nick Pinkerton is a Reverse Shot staff writer and editor and has also written for Interview and Stop Smiling. He works for IDP.]

The New York Dollsback in the day. Image provided by First Independent Pictures

Take 2 by Eric Hynes

At first glance, “New York Doll” is simply another rock doc. Archival footage, talking heads talking about influential music and legendary wild behavior, dramatic pans across photos and album art for maximum transitional verve — “New York Doll” delivers its goods as dependably as an over-worn pair of tight leather pants. But after a tidy history of pre-punk gender-benders the New York Dolls’ short time together and long life apart, the film relocates to the Family History Center library in Los Angeles, where bassist Arthur “Killer” Kane now maintains genealogical records for the Mormon church. He pushes carts and file folders beneath fluorescent lights. Minutes after Morrissey credits the Dolls with inspiring his own career, two female librarians, quite a bit older than 55-year-old Kane and wholly unfamiliar with his music, joke about being his new groupies.

The passage from rock-god to Latter Day Saint is pleasantly disorienting — for us and to a certain degree for Kane himself. His mild manner and dim brilliance seem well suited to clerical duties and bland revivalism, and he’s clearly grateful, after decades of drug abuse and depression, to have found firm footing. When his dream of reuniting with the Dolls starts to come true, it’s hard not to think he’d be better off staying at the library with his blue-haired groupies. This reverse tension of Kane’s return to the stage is “New York Doll”‘s deftest achievement, subverting our desires for revived rock glory.

Director Greg Whiteley plays up Kane’s excitement and dread more than he needs to, and relies too heavily on uncontextualized commentary from Mormon peers. Which isn’t to say that “New York Doll” has a Mormon agenda or that Kane’s return is morally questioned — it’s just that the film feels padded. I wish it took less time to recount the rise and fall, rise and fall, and filled out its running time instead with more sustained footage, either of Kane’s reanimation onstage at Morrissey’s Meltdown festival or of his stalking between the stacks at the Family History Center library. Each has its own odd, mesmerizing appeal.

[Eric Hynes is a Reverse Shot staff writer and has written for Cinemascope.]

The New York Dolls today: Syl Sylvain, David Johanssen and Arthur Kane. Image provided by First Independent Pictures

Take 3 by Nicolas Rapold

Yet another story about a fallen rocker saved by the Mormons. In all seriousness, this documentary about New York Dolls bassist Arthur Kane is directed so flatly, with a countdown narrative so mechanical, that one would think it was the fifth or the sixth of its kind. I could watch this adorable schlemiel pad about L.A. mumbling for a good while, but director Greg Whiteley always manages to give the feeling of stringing along the story, while making sure everything is explicit: someone actually points how, like, “paradoxical” Kane’s situation is; for the trip to the London reunion concert, “London Calling” is cued up; and lest we worry at any point in the run-up to the performance, we are told that fears of disappointment proved to be unfounded. All that, and he fails to show one song performed all the way through?

It’s a good story, sure, even if the Mormon faith seems a stand-in for the structures of AA. There are sweet moments between Kane and the former bandmate he resents, or Kane’s granny-groupie colleagues from his day job at a Mormon genealogy center. But a lot about Whiteley’s treatment gives off a low-level condescension, not malicious but irksome, towing about the lovable old shell-shocked bear and his trainers. Most apparent, to the chagrin of religiophobes, is that Mormon backbeat, the dispassionate officials and “home teacher” who plot his progress (and sound as thrilling as police officers giving testimony in any doc). In case the concert’s provenance remains unclear, the words “It shall be granted him” are left to linger on the screen. Morrissey stars as his own high-priest wounded healer, intoning sagely, but he can be excused because, well, it’s Morrissey. But who wants to hear Chrissie Hynde pronouncing upon Kane’s day-job and possible regrets, “There’s room for that,” as if talking of a toddler’s development? Or to watch the pathetic sight of Kane having to accept the compliments of a waitress who sounds plainly put up to saying, clearly and slowly, how she’s a “big fan”? Perhaps such is simply the destiny of the forgotten bassist, someone to pick out amongst the noise.

[Nicolas Rapold is a Reverse Shot staff writer and the assistant editor of Film Comment.]

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