First-time filmmaker Greg Whiteley came to the subject of his documentary feature not as a fan but as a friend of Arthur “Killer” Kane, bassist for the short-lived but influential ’70s rock band the New York Dolls.
Their unlikely collaboration began at the Mormon temple in West Los Angeles, where the one-time hard-drinking musician worked part-time until his death last year. This loving portrait centers on a June 2004 band reunion that quite startlingly turned out to be a valedictory for Kane. Screened at the Los Angeles Film Festival and slated for October release, “New York Doll” is a tender take on life after stardom.
With their cheap-hooker drag and proto-punk ferocity, the Dolls dusted the sequins off glam rock and ignited passions at a time when self-serious metal and prog rock ruled the day. In the film, Bob Geldof, Chrissie Hynde, Morrissey, Iggy Pop and Mick Jones testify to the Dolls’ inspirational sway. Mostly, though, Whiteley is concerned with how Kane weathered his post-Dolls comedown. “I’ve been demoted from rock star to schlep on the bus,” the car-less Kane notes with typically self-deprecating humor, childlike charm and the slightly stunned expression of someone not quite sure how his life turned out this way.
Barely getting by on extras work in films like “Spaceballs” after several failed attempts to start a band, he hit bottom after seeing former Dolls frontman David Johansen on TV in “Scrooged.” His disastrous alcoholic rage led to the breakup of his marriage and his serendipitous discovery of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which he joined in 1989.
Several interviewees speak of Kane’s envious appraisal of Johansen’s music and film careers, his sense of being denied something due him and his obsession with the Dolls’ heyday. So when Morrissey, guest curator of London’s annual Meltdown Festival, asked the band to play last year, it was in many ways a dream materialized. Church colleagues gave Kane the $262.50 he needed to get his bass guitar out of hock.
Whiteley’s access is most rewarding in footage of rehearsals for the show. Playing together for the first time in almost 30 years as part of the Morrissey-curated Meltdown Festival in London, the three surviving members — Johansen, Sylvain Sylvain and Kane — have an easy chemistry. Whatever jealousies and adversarial tensions Kane felt toward Johansen dissolve in the evident creative connection and deep affection between them. As “New York Doll” powerfully captures, that reconnection turned out to be a blessing when Kane died unexpectedly just weeks after the show.