Proving that Mormonism and makeup-adorned punk rock aren’t oil and water entities, New York Doll follows Arthur “Killer” Kane, towering bassist for seminal glam-punk outfit the New York Dolls, as he reunites with his bandmates after 30 years. An enormous, Frankensteinian figure with a love of the bottle who became a disciple of Joseph Smith and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints before dying in July 2004, Kane is the affable subject of Greg Whiteley’s Behind the Music-ish documentary, which taps into rock stars’ never-ending narcissistic desire for mass adulation and acclaim while also slathering on a hearty measure of reconciliatory sappiness.
Miserable over his group’s 1975 break-up after two influential albums, resentful over the copycat acts (Poison, Mötley Crüe) who stole from the Dolls’s feather boa-accessorized style, and jealous of singer David Johansen’s subsequent successes (most notably as alter-ego Buster Poindexter), Kane eventually turned to religion in 1989 as a way out of all-consuming anger and alcoholism. Employed in the church’s dour L.A. Family History Center library, Kane—who speaks with the slightly mumbled speech of a man whose brain has been permanently sloshed—is given a shot at reteaming with the two living Dolls (two other members died of overdoses) by the perpetually preening Morrissey, who encourages his childhood favorites to come together for a show at his 2004 Meltdown Festival in London.
Long obsessed with reclaiming the spotlight and reconnecting with his Dolls cohorts, Kane’s participation in the “historic” reunion show mere weeks before succumbing to leukemia is depicted as both an act of self-fulfillment as well as supposed proof that God grants true believers their utmost wishes. Director Whiteley (himself a Mormon) intersperses rehearsal and performance footage with soundbites from Kane’s frighteningly sunny brothers-in-Christ, yet his non-judgmental contrast between the musician’s financially meager life and his previously decadent rock n’ roll heyday is enhanced by the lack of born-again shame found in the devout Kane’s continued pride over his Dolls career.
When affecting a more historical pose, however, New York Doll winds up being a fawning, biased paean to the rather dull band (who are spoken of in teary-eyed, reverential tones), as well as a startlingly close-minded attempt at music cliquish juvenility. The Pretenders’s Chrissie Hynde laughably attempts to bolster the short-lived group as “a pinhole of light in the [otherwise dreary] early ‘70s,” a patently absurd view of the decade that’s matched by Morrissey’s equally mind-boggling assertion that “it seems to take the pop world 30 years to understand anybody.” The winner of the “our music is cool and everything else sucks” comment competition, however, is blowhard activist (and former Boomtown Rats frontman) Bob Geldof, who—in flippantly dismissing the era’s momentous heavy metal and prog-rock as “rubbish”—exemplifies not only the insular arrogance of the punk rock subculture, but also the omnipresent yet unconvincing one-sidedness of this attempt at Dolls mythologizing.