This review of New York Doll was originally published on the now-defunct movie blog Cinematical on October 27, 2005.
Years ago, while working at a Manhattan movie theatre, I discovered that one of the projectionists had been a guitarist for The Left Banke, a mostly-forgotten band of the 1960s responsible for the pop song “Walk Away Renee.” He had actually been kicked out of the group before that single, now a staple of oldies radio and supermarket Muzak stations, was recorded and the band hit it big. It doesn’t matter, since most people are unfamiliar with the name of the band, let alone its roster of musicians at any given moment during its heyday. I just thought it was neat to be working beside a one-time rock star. Now I wonder where the more prominent members, such as Michael Brown and Steve Martin, were at the time. Were they also integrated amongst unaware civilians like myself?
The best scene in the documentary New York Doll features the co-workers of Arthur “Killer” Kane, once the bassist for ‘70s punk band The New York Dolls, now employed in a genealogy library run by The Church of Latter-Day Saints. Two elderly women maturely discuss their relationship with Kane, telling how well he performs his job of filling copier paper trays and how ignorant they are of his former life. Of course, he isn’t dolled-up with makeup, hairspray and a striped leotard, as was the custom of his old job. He’s a cleaned-up Mormon, paying to the Church ten-percent of his paycheck from the Los Angeles Family History Center. It is probably hard for them to imagine their superbly mannered, conservatively dressed associate primping about on stage, basically in drag, side by side with junky hedonists like Johnny Thunders. Later, rather surprisingly, the old ladies transform into giddy schoolgirls when asked about whether they’d be his first new groupies if he’s given a chance to perform again, something Kane’s been praying for ever since finding religion.
If New York Doll shows anything of substance, it is that former rock stars are walking among us. They have mundane dead-end jobs, attend AA meetings and eat at popular restaurants without being bothered for autographs. They are everywhere, and no special glasses can help unmask them. But if you’re observant, you might just spot one in your local grocery: he is the guy suddenly paused and sullen-looking, having just heard his band’s classic tune played over the store’s speakers, and he’s weighing his current situation against his earlier days in the limelight.
Arthur Kane had spent almost thirty years fondly remembering the good times of being a rock ‘n’ roll bassist. Fortunately, for his sake, the songs of his old band aren’t typically played on mainstream airwaves or in common shops. But he was constantly reminded of The Dolls in the ‘80s by the glam descendant hair metal acts like Poison and Cinderella, and he was constantly depressed due to his jealousy of bandmate David Johansen, who prospered in that decade with a solo career in music, under the pseudonym Buster Poindexter, and in film. By 1989, Kane had hit rock bottom with drugs, alcoholism and attempted suicidel; he was divorced from his wife; and he had to turn around. By having an epiphany he became a rock ‘n’ roll cliché, but it is far better than overdosing, the other cliché that claimed the life of Dolls guitarist Johnny Thunders a few years later.
Filmmaker and fellow Mormon Greg Whiteley met Kane at church and was intrigued about his transition from glamorous rock stardom to humble obscurity. He began interviewing Kane (who comes off as a mildly retarded giant with the face of Bill Nighy and the voice of Crispin Glover-as-Andy Warhol) and could likely have made an interesting, albeit dismal, film about post-fame metamorphosis – something done regularly, yet without proper examination, by VH1’s Where Are They Now? programs. During the film’s production, though, The New York Dolls were given a chance to reunite for a festival in London. As a result, the appealing story of a man coming to grips with separating from his past became the banally triumphant story of a man revisiting it. Focusing on the lead-up to the concert causes New York Doll to feel like a very long episode of VH1’s Reunited, with all the predictable questions and doubts minus any of the drama. At one point Johansen and Kane have a chat about Mormonism; the singer slightly mocks his old friend, but it doesn’t escalate into a tense moment. I actually get the feeling throughout that Johansen couldn’t care less about Kane, although Whiteley never examines this.
New York Doll is a tribute to and stroking of its subject. If Whiteley did collect any contempt or criticism, he avoids sharing it, allowing for only favorable and honorable quotes from Morrissey, Iggy Pop, Mick Jones, Bob Geldof, and Chrissie Hynde, among other interviewees. The closest thing to a less-than-gushing remark is Geldof’s confession that his kids wouldn’t come to the reunion because they want in their minds only an image of the original band in their prime, not old men out for a bit of nostalgia. Otherwise this is a tribute to and stroking of Kane. Any juicy, meaty bits would probably have been offered in the beginning during the rushed, choppy background and introduction, but nothing doing. And by canonizing Kane, displaying this hulking angel with such innocence, the film is soulless. That seems like an oxymoron, a soulless angel, but this is what Whiteley achieves. He directs like he’s a Sunday school teacher.
His handling of The New York Dolls doesn’t make for the worst rock-doc, though. That title remains attached to Lech Kowalski’s Born to Lose: The Last Rock and Roll Movie, a mess that followed the life of Johnny Thunders, which premiered unfinished at the NY Underground Film Festival a few years back. Hopefully when the time comes for a David Johansen profile – and it better be soon, because I’m dying to understand how he went from transvestite Doll to tuxedoed alter ego Buster Poindexter – the filmmaker involved had better combine Kowalski’s ambition and backbone with Whiteley’s structure and cohesion.
While I wait for Personality Crisis: The Hot, Hot, Hot Life of a New York Doll Who Hits the Road to Hollywood, I am eager to find out where else there might be former legends of rock and roll. I don’t mean just anyone who’s been in a band – in New York that’s nearly everybody – nor do I mean seeing Ric Ocasek at the ATM (he still looks like a rock star, albeit an aged rock star). Nor do I mean modern Pete Bests who claim to have been in The Killers back when they were playing basements and backyards. I’m on a quest to find a drummer from a one-hit wonder now working as an accountant or trash collector. Spend the eighty minutes you could waste with this film on a search of your own. First person to find one gets to make the next documentary.