New York Doll

Runs Fri., Nov. 18–Thurs., Dec. 1, at Northwest Film Forum.

When documentaries about rock bands are made and released after the band is past its prime, the idea is usually to sell you on one of two ideas: These guys were the best, most influential, and most rockin' band ever; or, these guys are still the best, they are still influencing everyone within earshot, and they still rock as hard as ever, dude. Since the New York Dolls broke up 30 years ago, however, this documentary about its bass player, Arthur "Killer" Kane, sounds a less defiant, more poignant note by opening with the track "You Can't Put Your Arms Around a Memory." The ballad, written by Kane's now deceased former bandmate Johnny Thunders during his post-Dolls solo career, applies to Kane and to us—and to the filmmakers, who don't portray their hero in an overly nostalgic light.

Much in the same way that you can't hug what you can't see, you can't make a 50-year-old Mormon look like he's still a rock star—especially when he was somewhat awkward and wooden back when he was a rock star. Greg Whiteley, Seth Gordon, and Ed Cunningham, the Seattle natives who made New York Doll, respect Kane's boyish sweet nature enough not to prop it up with false ideas. Kane fell into obscurity after the Dolls' short-lived career—"demoted from rock star to schlepp on the bus" is actually how the bassist himself puts it, but he's smiling so sweetly when he says it that you don't really worry about him. Kane also eventually fell into Alcoholics Anonymous and the Church of Latter-day Saints. When it emerges that, after finding God, he began praying for a Dolls reunion and that God, in the form of Morrissey (the poet laureate of melancholia, former Smiths frontman, and avowed Dolls fan), answers his prayers, well, you do worry a little bit.

Whiteley, who met Kane at the LDS church they both attended, and Cunningham didn't make a sentimental film; it takes place, refreshingly, in the present. The memories and testimonials contributed by rock luminaries such as Chrissie Hynde, Mick Jones, and Iggy Pop aren't weighted any more heavily than the words of Kane's colleagues at the Mormon Family History Center in Los Angeles. (In fact, Kane's Mormon friends are a lot more interesting.) Spliced with these interviews and segments with the humble, bumbling Kane are artfully rendered informational timelines of his life and career, and, yes, a few vintage Dolls performances. In this way, the filmmakers have created a meaningful documentary not just for Dolls fans but for people interested in dreams that actually come true—even, or especially, if they are preceded by loneliness and oblivion. (NR)

 
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