VH1's Behind the Music set the template for the rock documentary: Hardscrabble rise leads to success too soon where tragic character flaws fuel fantastic excess and eventual ruin. Seattle filmmaker Greg Whiteley's New York Doll works hard to avoid crusty rock clichés in telling the surprisingly affecting story of Arthur "Killer" Kane, the bassist for punk and glitter linchpins the New York Dolls.
The Dolls were of one those before-their-time bands that were far more influential than heard, an unkempt, glittery combo that owed as much to '60s girl groups as it did Lower Manhattan and the Rolling Stones. Led by David Johansen, it burned brightly for two albums in the early '70s then flamed out in a blaze of drugs, booze and jealousy. Still their anarchic rock 'n' roll inspired the Clash, Sex Pistols, Blondie, the Smiths, Ramones and many others.
After the band's split, Kane was broke and adrift, unable to find his place in rock 'n' roll. He sank deeper into alcoholism and stewed in envy as rival Johansen achieved success with his alter-ego Buster Poindexter and landed small character roles in Hollywood films. Living in L.A., Kane also watched vastly inferior hair-metal bands such as Poison and Hanoi Rocks appropriate but wholly misinterpret the Dolls' élan. Hitting rock bottom, Arthur jumped out of a third-story window after his wife left him. But he survived the fall, sobered up and, rather shockingly, joined the Mormon Church.
Whiteley catches up with Kane in 2004, a slightly addled 55-year-old man who takes the bus to work at the Family History Center in L.A.'s Mormon Temple. Adored by the elderly ladies who work alongside him, Kane in his starched white shirt and lopsided tie is galaxies away from his life as a decadent rock star. Still, he pines to be on stage, playing music if only he could get his bass out of the pawn shop. That's when Brit crooner Morrissey contacts him, inviting the Dolls to reunite at his Meltdown Festival in London.
New York Doll lays out a bittersweet tale of unlikely redemption; starting off strong but losing steam toward the end before landing a final emotional knockout punch. Whiteley's film is best when it tells Kane's personal story, capturing the disappointment and emotional fallout of oversized expectations and hard knocks. But when he lays out the history of the Dolls, the film often crosses over into fawning overvaluation. Iggy Pop, Bob Geldof, Chrissie Hynde, and Morrissey gush praise for the band while too often revealing a snobbish sense of punk superiority.
And once the Dolls actually do get back together, the documentary is unable to create drama from a mostly amicable reunion; when it's clear Kane is capable of reclaiming his role in rock history, Whiteley's carefully crafted sense of anticipation evaporates without fanfare. There's little doubt you'll root for Kane to succeed, but the final festival payoff is pretty anticlimactic.
More interesting is the prospect of watching Kane's return to humdrum church life after he's once again tasted rock 'n' roll celebrity. Unfortunately, we never see that part of Kane's story since the doc delivers an unexpected last-act twist that recasts everything we've seen.
It's to Whiteley's considerable credit that audiences need know nothing of the New York Dolls to enjoy his lively and moving documentary. From Whiteley's brutally honest comments about Kane's past to an unshakable faith in his musical skills, Whiteley's portrayal of Kane is both personable and sweet, endearing us with the artist's quiet fragility. Interviews with the clergy and members of his church reveal a community that instinctively seeks to protect Kane. And you understand why: The man's intentions are pure. He isn't looking for fame; he just wants to perform for people who appreciate his band's music.
The ultimate strength of any doc lies within its subject. Despite Whiteley's obvious affection for Kane and the Dolls, he never has to force the issue. Instead, he shows Kane to us and we're won over by his befuddled dignity. New York Doll is a touching portrait of a man who recovers who he was, while never forgetting what he's become.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237), at 9:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, Dec. 8-9.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.