NEW YORK DOLL (2005)
Starring Arthur “Killer” Kane, David Johansen, Sylvain Sylvain, Johnny Thunders, Rick Rivets, Jerry Nolan, Billy Murcia, Steve Conte, Gary Powell, Morrissey, Chrissy Hynde, Sir Bob Geldof, Iggy Pop, Mick Jones, Chris Stein, Frank Infante, Bob Gruen, Sam Yaffa, Don Letts, Sky Saxon, Nina Antonia, Mark Bragg and Mac McGregor.
Directed by Greg B. Whiteley.
Distributed by First Independent Pictures. 78 minutes. Rated PG-13.
Several bands have legitimate claims to being the fathers of punk rock. Iggy and the Stooges, the Seeds and the Standells all opened the door somewhat. The Ramones, the Clash and the Sex Pistols kicked it open. However, in between those groups was a band that set most of the rules that would follow, The New York Dolls.
The Dolls were six funny looking guys who took the Stones’ dirty rock, mixed it with glam and roughed it up to create a whole new sound. Their strangely androgynous dress and looks, mixed with a crunching, shrieking sound and an ear for hard rock hooks made them one of the most influential bands of the early seventies. However, the band never quite caught on overall – after two slow-selling albums they were dumped by their label and the band fractured.
However, this story is not really about the New York Dolls. In fact, the Dolls’ history is quickly related in Cliff Notes form in the beginning of the film. Later, in the scenes leading up to the reunion concert, some of the bigger stories of the band are filled in – original drummer Billy Murcia’s death of drug-related suffocation as the band embarked on their first British show, the appearance on The Old Grey Whistle Test which helped to spark the nascent punk scene in England (a full three years before the Ramones made it there), lead singer David Johansen’s gaining minor celebrity by morphing into his Latin lounge persona Buster Poindexter and becoming a character actor, Johnny Thunders eventual heroin overdose followed quickly by Jerry Nolan’s fatal stroke. But even with this info, huge chunks of the band’s history and most of their music is not at all discussed.
No, this story may encompass the Dolls, but it is the life story of their bassist, Arthur “Killer” Kane. Kane’s nickname apparently was from an amalgam of sources – his bass playing was called “killer” in an early review, and this reminded him of an old Buck Rogers villain called Killer Kane. But more than that, it probably stemmed from the inherent irony of the handle for the man. There are few people in the world of rock who seem as even-tempered, well-meaning, and just slightly addled as Kane does.
It is interesting that this movie would be about Kane, rather than the Dolls members who had more obviously interesting and dramatic lives. David Johansen, Sylvain Sylvain and particularly Johnny Thunders would all make for riveting case studies on rock and roll excess. However, New York Doll is not your typical Behind the Music-type of expose. It doesn’t dwell on the drugs and alcohol, the suicide attempts, the violence, the allure of fame, the pawn shops, and the lack of money, although all of those subjects are certainly touched upon.
This is perhaps because director Greg B. Whiteley came into Kane’s life on the other side. When he met Kane, he was a nice, quiet, soft-spoken volunteer librarian and converted Mormon. As Kane tells the story, he was at rock bottom – he’d broken up with his wife and tried to jump out of his third-story apartment window – when he decided on a whim to call in for a pamphlet he saw in an ad for the church.
In the years leading to this epiphany, Kane had been lost. He still clung to illusions of rock stardom even though he didn’t have two pennies to rub together. When the Dolls fractured, Johansen and Sylvain continued to limp along with the name briefly before going solo. Thunders and Nolan formed the Heartbreakers, gaining a certain amount of notoriety, as much for Thunders’ drug excesses as for the music. Only Kane was set totally free, and after starting several bands with no success, Kane had to pawn his basses and give up on music. He envied the marginal success that Johansen, Sylvain and even Thunders achieved after leaving the Dolls behind.
Kane’s immersion into the religion gave him a sense of peace and a sense of community. It allowed him to break the stranglehold of alcoholism. It made his life more humble, more intellectual, and more satisfying. But it never quite took away his lust for stardom.
As with many converts, sometimes Kane’s devotion to his religion seems a little oppressive to the casual viewer (and sometimes, it seems, to bandmate David Johansen). This is not helped by the fact that quite a few of his Mormon counselors and co-workers and clergymen also talk about his spiritual awakening and more generally about religion, which is not normally what you’re looking for when you go to a rock and roll movie. However, this was the path that Kane took, and if you want to see the real Kane then you will have to follow him down it. As Johansen says late in the film, “People who’ve really been in the war, but then come out the other end as, for lack of a better word, spiritual beings – that’s the greatest kind of person in the world.”
Kane’s return to the spotlight happened almost by accident. British rock star Morrissey, who was a huge Dolls fan as a child, decided to invite the Dolls to reunite for the 2004 Meltdown Festival in London. To everyone’s surprise, Johansen agreed to do the show and the three surviving members (as well as Johansen guitarist Steve Conte and Libertines drummer Gary Powell) had to learn to play together all over again. Even though Kane had not played in nearly twenty years, he saw it as a return to his rock dreams. He also saw it as a way to mend fences with the two surviving Dolls, to regain friendships that had long ago tarnished.
Even more touching than the triumphant reunion show (of which one song is shown) is a simple section leading up to it. After getting a chance to fly to London for the show, we see a giddy Kane reacting with sheer joy and amazement at the hotel room he is staying in. The room, which is nice enough, but certainly no huge mega-suite, fascinates the bassist, who giddily points out all the amenities that it offers – the computer port, the THREE phones, including one in the bathroom. Kane wistfully points out that the dwelling is much nicer than his apartment, and he’s not wrong.
However, unlike so many musicians who would misuse or take for granted the trappings of a hotel, Kane’s life has moved on so that he is truly awestruck even by the slightest luxuries. He dreamily says that he could forget the show, he would be happy to just sit in this room for the rest of his life and watch the Thames out of the window. You can tell, completely and surely as the sun rising in the morning and setting in the evening, that he is totally sincere about it. Before the concert, the band goes to an award banquet, and as Johansen’s girlfriend points out, while most of the others in the room seem to think it is a chore to endure, Kane is enchanted. Thirty years on from all the excess, Arthur Kane has grown to appreciate and savor the little things.
This also brings about a question that is rife with drama. Will Kane be able to go back again? Once he has tasted of this world once more, will he be content to go back to being a volunteer librarian, taking the bus to work and living in his squalid little apartment? Life intervenes and everything changes, but you have to be thankful to see a humble man who finally comes close to regaining his wildest dreams. (10/05)
Jay S. Jacobs