DVD Review: All The Old Dolls

New York Doll/All Dolled Up: A New York Dolls Story

A pair of last minute substitutions were found for my missing MC5 documentary Wednesday night, when a group of us got together for what’s hopefully going to become a monthly Rock Doc (and pizza) party. We ended up following the story of a group that, just like The MC5, can rightly be viewed as punk rock influences, musical outlaws, one equally ravaged by drug addictions, premature deaths and the curse of being ahead of their time: the New York Dolls.

The premise of New York Doll, however – which was released in 2005 – is more intriguing than your usual retrospective account of a group’s rise and fall. When newly graduated film-maker Greg Whiteley began attending the Latter Day Saints Church on Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles, he met the 50-something Arthur Kane, who was keen to share his not-so-secret past. In the 70s, Arthur ‘Killer’ Kane had been bassist for the New York Dolls, and it had proven a hard cross to bear; he had only beaten his years of alcoholism and artistic disappointments by turning his back on his musical past and joining the Mormon church. He was now employed as a librarian at the LDS’ LA-based Family History Center library, a job about as far removed from the New York Dolls as humanly possible.
New York Doll
Intrigued by the possibilities, Whiteley had only just started following Kane through his daily routines with a camera when, with perfect timing, Morrissey – the New York Dolls’ UK fan club president in his early 70s pre-Smiths days – was appointed curator of the 2004 Meltdown Festival at London’s Royal Festival Hall, and decided to push his childhood heroes to reform for the occasion. With Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan having joined original drummer Billy Murcia in the graveyard, that left only three original members: vocalist David Johansen, guitarist Sylvain Sylvain – and Arthur ‘Killer’ Kane.

The Mormon convert, it transpires, was perhaps the most eager to reform: his devotion to the church notwithstanding, Kane had never made peace with his past, and clearly still yearned to recapture some of the glory, too. A simple enough man – one might assume he lost some brain cells through the years of alcoholism – Kane allowed Whiteley to follow him through the group’s reunion in New York and on to the Meltdown performance. “We just decided we would keep going until somebody said ‘no,’” explains Whiteley of the ever-expanding project, on the movie’s web site. “And nobody did. People loved the Dolls. They loved Arthur. All the big names who never seem to want to be interviewed, you just mentioned Arthur’s name and they volunteered and jumped in front of the camera.”

Who would not want to watch such a story through to its hopefully happy ending? The finale comes either as a shock or simply as a sad full stop, depending on how much you know of the Dolls and their relationship with the Grim Reaper. But any lack of suspense doesn’t prevent New York Doll from offering an unusually tender take on the clichéd sex, drugs and rock’n’roll script.

This sweetness is surely down to Whiteley’s own Mormon faith. Most rock’n’roll documentary directors would sneer at a once-decadent musician’s conversion to Christ; Whiteley prefers instead to let everyone talk for themselves. He makes no attempt to sell us a religion – be it rock’n’roll or Mormonism. (Although it’s worth noting that his fellow workers at the Mormon Library, rather than talk him out of the reunion, pool together to get Kane’s bass out of hock.) If this makes for a lack of conflict, then so be it. Arthur Kane clearly went through enough of that during his downward spiral.
All Dolled Up
We followed the Kane movie with All Dolled Up, a set of “home” movies made by famed New York photographer Bob Gruen and his wife Nadya Beck through the group’s early 1970s heyday. As a slice of history, they’re something quite special, and though sound and vision rarely reach big screen proportions, Gruen clearly brought a cinematographer’s perspective to his interviews and B-roll; the performances, in venues as small as Kenny’s Castaways, reveal the group to be tighter than you may have expected, while still ramshackle enough to keep you excited. I’d like to say we watched it to its conclusion, but in true middle-aged fashion, we had to give up on All Dolled Up to get our kids home and off to bed. It was a school night after all. We hope Arthur Kane would have approved.

Previously at iJamming!: The New York Dolls at Randalls Island

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December 2021