New York Doll Review
Our first sight of Arthur ‘Killer’ Kane is as a self-confessed “schlep on the bus”: edgy, ageing, Woody Allen-esque whine. It’s hard to equate this man with the ‘Killer’ Kane of yesteryear, the one-time bassist for the New York Dolls, and this is a tension which lies at the heart of Greg Whitely’s impressive documentary. How do you go from playing in one of the seventies’ most influential bands – responsible for a limited discography but also a sizeable chunk of musical history – to a Mormon who can rarely afford to get his guitars out of hock?
In order to understand this shift New York Doll spends equal time in the past and the present. The history of the Dolls (and their influence) is relayed by a number of famous fans with the likes of Morrissey, Bob Geldof and the Clash’s Mick Jones all stepping up to pay tribute. The in-between times, meanwhile, are left largely to Kane himself and wife Barbara. We learn of a suicide attempt which prevented our subject from walking for almost a year; blink-and-you’ll-miss cameo appearances in Spaceballs and InnerSpace; and get Barbara’s self-deprecating description as “the rock star’s wife who had no money”. Finally, Kane’s current life as a Mormon working in the local ‘Family History Centre’ is witnessed first hand and via his friends, bishops, ‘home teacher’ and co-workers. The overall picture, therefore, is a richly detailed one; a fitting mixture which neither dwells on the good or the bad. Though Morrissey may, at one point, refer to “the curse of the New York Dolls” (most famously there was the death of guitarist Johnny Thunders), this is no bleak journey through the recent past and neither is it a catalogue of upsets and failures, though both do play their part.
Rather the overriding feeling is one of intimacy. Director Whitely is himself a Mormon and indeed knew Kane prior to filming. As a result New York Doll has been made primarily through this friendship. It’s there to dispel rumours – such as the one in which Kane had been “missing in action since the LA riots” – and present its subject in as warm a fashion as possible. As we learn from the accompanying special features, it was the reformation of the Dolls for the Meltdown Festival (curated that year by Morrissey) which provided the impetus for making the documentary: a near-fairy tale moment for Kane, this being something he had dwelt on and wished for repeatedly. And yet the closeness which Whitely brings also prevents New York Doll from becoming a softened version of events. Instead, it means we’re privy to a number of private moments, each hinting towards their own bitter histories. The pre-Meltdown “banter” between Kane and Dolls’ frontman David Johansson (who achieved some level of success following the band’s demise) feels especially barbed, Johansson seemingly bullying Kane over his newfound religious beliefs – clearly there’s still a great tension between the two.
Or perhaps that should be there was still a great tension. Mere days after the Meltdown performance Kane died of previously undiagnosed leukaemia. Effectively, the show became his happy ending – a dream finally achieved at the end of his life. Furthermore, New York Doll itself proves to be a fitting tribute. It offers a complete portrait of the man, but more importantly one that also feels utterly genuine.
A rather inauspicious 74-minute documentary, New York Doll comes with a similarly inauspicious DVD presentation. The film’s original 1.78:1 aspect ratio is maintained, the soundtrack is a fairly standard DD2.0 offering and there are no optional subtitles. And yet, this is all the film really deserves; it’s not the most visually or sonically inspiring of efforts (not that it should be, of course) and comes across as such. Both picture and soundtrack seem as they should, nothing more nothing less.
As for extras, here we find a sketchy bunch, though each is welcome. Johansson and Brian Koonin provide a rendition of ‘Come, Come Ye Saints’ as seen under the film’s closing credits. Whitely offers a six-minute interview which is far more satisfying than its duration would perhaps allow. We learn of his status as a Mormon, his past as a film student and the struggles he had structuring the film so that it wouldn’t resemble the standard VH-1 Behind the Music template. Rounding off the disc we also see Morrissey’s interview in unedited 18-minute form – an interesting addition both for what he has to say in full and for the manner in which it allows us to see just how documentary filmmakers edit their talking heads. New York Doll’s theatrical trailer is also present as are a number of cross-promotional pieces for other Optimum releases.