A Special Guest Post from Brian Gibson
I want to thank the powers that be at By Common Consent for giving me this chance to post a review of the new documentary NEW YORK DOLL. It’s a testament to the quality of this film that after seeing it this weekend I felt something I’ve never felt after seeing a film before. I felt instantly compelled to do something pro-active to get as many people as possible to see it. It’s simply that good.
NEW YORK DOLL tells the true-life story of Arthur “Killer” Kane, the former bassist of the seminal punk rock band The New York Dolls” a group that was as outrageously influential as it was self-destructive.
Most rock documentaries follow the familiar course of charting a band from a humble beginning through a meteoric rise to fame, and culminating with a combination of fights, tragic deaths, and the dissolution of the group. All of those elements are part of the history of the New York Dolls, but as the singular title New York Doll suggests, director Greg Whiteley wisely ignores previous conventions and puts his focus solely on Arthur Kane, making him a true protagonist and hero.
Rather than introducing us to a young musician with dreams of rock stardom, the filmmakers introduce us to Arthur decades after his fifteen minutes of fame is over and long after most rock documentaries end. We meet Arthur boarding a public bus in his white shirt and tie, on his way to his job working in the Family History Center near the L.A. temple. Much of the charm of this film is in getting to know that eccentric character at the back of the bus or the back of the chapel. By the end of the film if you don’t love Arthur Kane then you probably don’t have much of a heart.
Arthur is a Mormon and a punk rock star rolled up into one, and what the film does best is marry the two seemingly contradictory passions of Mormonism and punk rock. From the soundtrack to the interviews we get a delightful fusion of two different worlds” most films are lucky if they can transport you to only one. In NEW YORK DOLL you hear punk rock classics back to back with hymns and the Mormon Tabernacle. You see pop music legends like Morrissey, Sir Bob Geldoff, Iggy Pop, and Mick Jones of the Clash alongside Arthur’s bishops, home teacher, and his co-workers at the Family History Library. From the beginning to the end, the film makes magic out of merging Mormon culture and punk rock” one perfect and unforgettable example comes after the credits roll when David Johansen, the lead singer of the New York Dolls, sings a lovely rendition of “A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief.”
Even the audience I was seated in was clearly about half Mormon and half punk rock aficionados. Part of the charm of this film is the way it argues for a mutual respect among these two groups that Arthur’s story proves are not quite as incompatible as one might think.
And what a story it is. The film eschews all the manipulative and dogmatic techniques favored in recent documentaries for a more pure documentary approach. For most of the film the director Greg Whiteley wisely chooses to get out of the way.
Layer upon layer is added to Arthur’s character and we learn about the sting it was to peak too early and then to disappear into obscurity. We learn about the failure to form other successful bands and the pain of seeing his own band imitated over and over. We learn about how resentment led to alcoholism, which in turn led to Arthur leaping out of a three story window one night and, as he remarks in his characteristic droll wit, he literally hit “rock bottom.”
Arthur responded in part by requesting a free Book of Mormon from an ad, and as one of his punk rock associates observes, “They don’t send you the book. They bring it.” After praying to know whether the book was true Arthur feels something so unique that he can only compare it to an acid trip. One gets the impression Arthur knows what he’s talking about. Arthur’s favorite scripture in the Book of Mormon is about how if you have sufficient faith in Christ whatever you ask for will be granted to you. True to his word God delivers on his promise to Arthur and that’s where this film really takes off.
With a little help from Morrissey, Arthur gets a chance to reunite with his surviving bandmates and play a gig together for the first time in nearly thirty years in London at the Royal Festival Hall. The members of his ward pitch in so he can get his bass out of hock at the local pawn shop and he begins to practice. That’s where I’m going to leave off because I want you to discover everything that happens next when you see this film.
We’re at the time of year when Hollywood is trotting out its big gun films as studios seek Oscar glory. There’s even other great choices out there if you’re looking to see a Mormon film this weekend or the next, but I’m here to tell you you’re highly unlikely to see a film as refreshing, original, and dare I say, uplifting as this one.
I don’t believe people should be made to feel they need to see a film because they belong to a certain group. In my opinion good Christians don’t need to see PASSION OF THE CHRIST, good Democrats don’t need to see FAHRENHEIT 9/11 and good Mormons don’t need to see this film. But at a time where even the brightest stars in Mormon Cinema are predicting its imminent demise, it is wonderful to know that any such prophet of doom is speaking prematurely. NEW YORK DOLL is proof we have new filmmakers waiting in the wings, new stories to tell, and new kinds of films to make. NEW YORK DOLL shows us that if Mormon Cinema is likened to an olive tree, there remain many fruitful branches to be grafted onto it. Go see it. You won’t regret it. The end.