We often hold our cultural icons to a higher standard than we do our politicians or religious leaders. Sports figures, actors and rock stars often win our adoration based on their fame alone. We revere and love them, but we also envy them. We promote their climb to the apex of fortune and glory; however, we sometimes wait gleefully for them to make that one wrong step that sends them tumbling back down to the foot of the mountain. Sometimes, though, a person comes along who is hugely popular and dearly loved, and when he or she disappears, we are dismayed, not overjoyed. New York Doll: From Rock Star to Rock Bottom and Back, directed by Greg Whiteley, is the story of one such icon, Arthur "Killer" Kane, bass player for the famed New York Dolls.
Formed in 1972, the New York Dolls were lipstick-, eyeliner-, high heels- and Spandex-wearing Arthur Kane, David Johansen, Sylvain Sylvain, Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan (note: original drummer Billy Murcia died before the band recorded their first album). The Dolls were a boozy breath of air in a bleak, almost non-existent music scene. They sired New York City's punk movement and bands like the Sex Pistols, The Clash and Morrissey always credit the Dolls for their own formation. A band is not a movement, though, and sometimes the parts are greater than the sum because those parts are, quite simply, people.
In the world of rock music, it isn't usually the critics whom musicians look to for approval, it is their peers. Peppered throughout the film are bits of interviews from several of the Dolls' rock followers and contemporaries including Sir Bob Geldof, the Pretenders' Chrissie Hynde, Mick Jones, who discusses the importance the Dolls had to the genesis of The Clash, Iggy Pop of the Stooges, Clem Burke and Frank Infante of Blondie, photographer Leee Black Childers and others who also chime in with their memories and admiration of the New York Dolls. Reclusive Smiths frontman Morrissey--who was responsible for the 2004 reunion show of the Dolls at London's Meltdown festival--is featured several times in the film as well, including a section in which he discusses the unfortunate fact that many bands are not fully appreciated until after they're gone. The interviews with famous people lend credibility to Kane's rock star status, but it is those with Kane's church friends and coworkers that give solidity to the man behind the makeup.
The film opens with Kane waiting to catch a bus. In a white, button-down shirt, a tie, black slacks and his name tag authoritatively clipped to his shirt pocket, Kane is making his way to his job at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) Family History Center where, among other duties, he is responsible for keeping the center's copiers full of paper. Interviews in the film include those with other center employees and members of the church's hierarchy. The churchgoers are all quite fond of Kane and are incredulous when they discover the tall, soft-spoken man with whom they work side-by-side used to be a dressed-in-drag rock star. It is these interviews--often recorded on video instead of film--that lend an air of home-movie honesty to the documentary.
Unavoidably, comparisons between New York Doll and Napoleon Dynamite have to be made. The "star" of each film is a tall, geeky man-boy; both film directors are devout Mormons and spent many of their influential years in Idaho (Whiteley grew up in Oakley, a small town in southern Idaho near the Utah border, and the name of his production company, One Potato Productions, pays homage to his Potato State roots); and throughout both films there is a sense of foreboding that the protagonist will fall flat on his long face. While both Dynamite and Kane face daunting odds, both are fully redeemed--interestingly enough, on stage and through music. The big difference between the two films being that Napoleon Dynamite is a work of fiction and New York Doll is bitingly real.
Whiteley is proud of his film, and he has every reason to be. New York Doll was a huge success at Sundance and has opened in New York and Los Angeles to wide critical acclaim. A Clio Award-winning director and graduate of the Arts Center College of Design, Whiteley became friends with Kane around 2000 when they both attended the same LDS church in Los Angeles. Whiteley was assigned as one of Kane's home teachers. Eventually, the two began discussing and planning for a film biography of Kane's life. When the surviving members of the Dolls were asked by Morrissey to perform at the Meltdown festival, it was natural that Whiteley would continue to follow and film Kane. What comes out of this voyage is the story of a man who went from the heights of stardom to the depths of anonymity and somehow managed to keep his soul intact.
When I interviewed him for this piece, Whiteley asked two things of me. He asked that I not divulge the ending of the film and that I make a request of anyone who goes to see it: please stay through the ending credits. Whiteley has added some footage to the end that he wants you to see. My request of him: Why a film about Arthur "Killer" Kane? Why invest the time and money in this particular man? Other than the fact the Whiteley and Kane were friends, he said, quite simply, "Ah, nobody loves a bass player." Maybe, but after you see this movie, there is one sweet, humble bass player you may find yourself a little in love with.