Amid the latest wave of documentaries and all the related irrelevant debris swept on our cinema screens, fortunately there are the exceptions that make up for them. New York Doll, like the proto-punk band New York Dolls on whom the title is based, sparkles against this often dull scenario. The debut feature of director Greg Whiteley, New York Doll focuses on the band’s bassist, Arthur ‘Killer’ Kane, who’s got to be one of the most unlikely rock and roll figures in the genre’s history. Rich in real pathos, Whiteley’s compassionate and delicate treatment of his subject matter is on par with the best works of contemporary downbeat fiction.
The New York Dolls, whose unofficial UK fan club was once headed by the young Morrissey (more of him later), was a seminal, pared-down rock band in early 70s New York, an anomaly amid the long-haired dictatorship of progressive rock that dominated the musical landscape in the dreariness of the hangover decade. Like the Stooges, the band injected some raucous, raw energy into rock music by taking it back to its simple guitar-drums-bass get-up and adding tons of make-up and women’s clothes to it.
It’s easy to forget how more than thirty years ago what a bunch of gender-bending freaks they must have been perceived as when they hit the scene. Their look has been so copied by cheesy hard-rock LA bands and the Glam Rock contingent that it seems like the music industry had always been happy to embrace that kind of feistiness. But it hadn’t and as true pioneers, the New York Dolls paid the price for being, as the cliché goes, ahead of their time.
They disbanded after their second album, Too Much Too Soon (1975) without having made any money. Burnt-out by drugs and alcohol abuse, some of the original members managed to pursue further careers. Vocalist Davind Johansen morphed into Buster Pointerdexter, Sylvian Sylvian continued to play professionally and guitarrist Johnny Thunders and drummer Jerry Nolan founded the influential punk band The Heartbreakers. Arthur, in his turn, faded into obscurity, ventured on some failed musical projects and took the beaten route to alcoholic dissipation which nearly killed him. As he says at the beginning of the film, he hit rock bottom, both figuratively and literally (he fell off the window of his flat at some point).
The story behind New York Doll started when Whiteley heard about Morrissey taking over the curatorship of the London Meltdown festival at the Southbank in 2004, a summer festival where each season a guest curator is given freedom to present a programme based on his or her own taste (John Peel, Nick Cave, Laurie Anderson have all been at the helm of the event). Morrisey then launched the invitation for the band to reunite under his auspices. Whiteley had befriended Arthur at the Mormon mission they both frequented (he converted in 1989) and decided to follow him around with his camera during his preparation to come to London.
We encounter Arthur in Los Angeles, working at the Family History Center Library. His tragi-comic personality coupled with his dowdy office attire creates instant empathy. He is the man who is known amongst rock fans and specialists as ‘the only statue in rock and roll’ in reference to Arthur’s wooden posturing on stage. But Whiteley never takes the easy route to show Arthur as a ‘loser’; instead, his ‘humdrum’ life comes across as a rounded existence, as the affection of the two elderly ladies who work with him, and who pop up in the film a few times, reinforces.
The narrative builds up swiftly, rippling out to create a picture of his present life and his past, but also steadily heading towards the culmination of the film in London. This gives the story an amplitude that transcends the mere biopic, resulting in a poignant, respectful portrait of an individual. The reunion of the band in New York to rehearse for the gig after a 30-year hiatus is one of the highlights of the film. It’s moving to see affection forming between that haggered lot so quickly. When they finally arrive in London, as a viewer you are desperately hoping that the concert will work and Arthur will see his long-nurtured dream to be a rock star again, even if fleetingly, fulfilled. A feeling of exhilaration enters the movie when they walk on stage to a rapturous audience. As a viewer, you share the same feeling. Watching Arthur play the bass (with a wooden posture, for sure!) is like witnessing a child receiving their most desired present. Extremely moving, New York Doll is a film about broken dreams and fandom (courtesy of Morrissey) whose integrity renders it into something nearing the spiritual. A must-see for both music and film fans.
New York Doll opens in the UK on 7 April 2006.