Movie Review: NEW YORK DOLL

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.

Comments

  1. Thanks Brian, I know I’ll love this movie. I really have to see it, but I doubt I’ll be able to in a theater. Car troubles, sickness, etc.

  2. Brian, do you have any idea if they plan to release beyond the intermountain west? I’ve heard so many phenomenal things about this film, that I’m dying to see it.

  3. Here’s a link with theaters and showtimes.

  4. Okay Brian, I’ll see the film (and I probably wouldn’t have without your review and recommendation). When I pitch it to DW, I’ll leave out the punk rock stuff and just say it’s a touching movie about a musician who converts to Mormonism after calling the 800 number.

  5. I’ll add my testimony to Brian’s (by the mouth of two or three witnesses…) that this movie is fantastic. I had a smile on my face the entire show. In addition, there are some of the sweetest, most touching moments I’ve ever seen in film. His recounting of his BoM experience is touching as well as his prayer with the bandmates (both touching and hilarious).

    Dave,
    The punk rock stuff really is a secondary aspect of the film, it’s all about Arthur.

    Karen,
    It’s playing in NYC right now. I would imagine it’s playing in a lot of independent houses.

  6. Rusty,

    The only place I knew where it was playing in NYC was the Angelika Film Center and it is no longer there. Is it playing somewhere else I don’t know about?

  7. Bob Caswell says:

    Scooped! By a guest blogger no less. I, like J. Stapley, tend to sit on half-written posts. Well done review, Brian, much better than anything I had even started to write. Count me in as the third witness testifying that the movie is, indeed, fantastic (quite honestly, I wonder what it would take / what it’d be up against to be in the running for an Oscar in the documentary category).

    I saw the film at the SLC premier and stuck around for the Q&A with the director. He had some interesting tidbits / stories ranging from how he met Arthur to how his first version of the film was much longer and focused less on the main character. His honest wife pretty much told him that it was boring and that she liked it most when Arthur was on screen. Hence, the version we have now.

    By the way, for anyone of this crowd cautiously avoiding the movie because of the PG-13 rating, I’d like to say that the rating is not really merited. The MPAA rates any movie a minimum of PG-13 if drug content is involved (i.e., Arthur comparing his conversion to an acid trip). It isn’t offensive in any way. Excellent film, go and see it.

  8. Supergenius says:

    Rumor has it that the apres-thanksgiving party will show a screener.

  9. Thank you, everyone for your responses. I clipped the following from an e-mail the director sent to me and it has dates and locations as to where this film can be seen.

    “The roll out of the film New York Doll is in full swing (sort of). We are expanding to:

    -Seattle (This Friday – Nov. 18)
    -Boise/and other Idaho Theaters (Nov. 18)
    -Dallas (Nov. 23)
    -Chicago (Nov. 25)
    -San Francisco (Nov. 25)

    It is no secret that if we do well opening weekend in these cities, we will continue to play the following weekend. I would encourage anyone you know in these cities if they would like to see it to see it opening weekend! If you know people in Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Los Angeles (or you live in these cities yourself) Thursday night will be your last chance to see New York Doll on the big screen. As mentioned, we are considered a small film and this is a very busy season for much larger films (i.e. Harry Potter) and we cannot expect to hang on forever (or even 4 weeks–in some cases). Please, if you have interest in seeing this film in any of these cities before it is released on DVD, do so by Thursday night.”

  10. Awesome review, Brian! I can’t wait to see it. However, since I live in backwater B*E I guess I’ll have to wait until it comes out on DVD. Arthur reminds me of David St. Hubbins (the patron saint of quality footwear) from Spinal Tap.

  11. Bob Caswell says:

    Arthur reminds me of Eugene Levy’s character in “A Mighty Wind.” But since he’s real, he’s way cooler!

  12. Shannon Keeley says:

    Arthur Kane was my home teacher here in L.A., and a very dedicated one at that. Mainly due to my own ignorance about punk music, I had no idea who he was for several months. Even after I was informed that Arthur was part of the punk sensation “New York Dolls,” I didn’t grasp how influential his band was. It was pretty surreal to watch the film and hear artists like Morrissey talk about Arthur’s band so affectionately. . .and to think that that’s the same guy who used to sit on our couch and deliver a message from the Ensign.

    For me, one of the poignant lessons from New York Doll is to take a closer look at those eccentric characters on the back of the bus or in the back of the chapel, as Brian puts it. I’m sure that many of them have amazing stories to tell, if only we would take a moment to dig deeper and find out about them.
    ~Shannon K

  13. Brian:
    I’m about to try and hit up the local art house/indy theaters here in Philly to show it. Got any ready made talking points I can use; besides “it won an award at sundance”?

    thanks,
    lyle

  14. Does anyone know how to contact the film distributor? I’d be interested in playing it at my theater in Orem, after it gets done with its regular first run.

  15. That’s a good question, Lyle. I guess the talking points I might hit on is that it’s a) a documentary–documentaries being all the rage of late and b)it’s about punk rock. The punk rock angle is huge because even big music fans may not understand the influence of the New York Dolls–I know I didn’t. So to that end you might want to point out all the music royalty that appear in the film.

    I’d also encourage the theater to look up the per screen average of the film’s box office returns. It’s probably pretty good.

    One thing I can imagine a local art house/theater owner might be worried about is that the film gets preachy or has proselytizing as one of its goals. Not at all. In fact, part of what makes this film special is that the Church and its members end up looking so great in such an effortless way. The director does not disguise or downplay the role the Church had in Arthur’s life in any way, at one point the words to a Book of Mormon verse are actually in titles on the screen, but you really never see handprints all over the story as if the filmmakers are trying to say, “Look how good Mormonism is, everybody!”

    One way of looking at the film is to think about how it plays with the notions of hipness and squareness. In today’s age of irony the people you might think of as square (the Mormons basically) end up looking pretty hip. The people who you would naturally think are hip (the punk rockers) come off as looking a bit more square.

    Then again, maybe I’m a bit biased.

  16. Don,

    I know Steve Evans was on the phone earlier today with the distributor (man, Steve has connections). If he can’t help you though, e-mail me at brianngibson at gmail dot com. I’ll give you the director’s e-mail address.

    Another place to look would be the film’s website which is newyorkdollmovie.com.

  17. I am so excited to see this film. Thanks for the review.

  18. oh WOW! I had heard that this movie was being made awhile back and that one of the New York Dolls was LDS, but this movie looks GREAT. Now I just have to convince my 67-year old mom to go see it at the Roxie from November 25 to December 1 (attention all you Bay Area-ites), because I am stuck in the hinterlands and won’t be able to go. (wimpers pathetically).

  19. Eric Russell says:

    Just saw it tonight, coincidentally. I liked what Brian pointed out about the juxtaposition of the old rock world and the new Mormon one. It was almost scary for a moment to see Arthur renter the old one – as if he might be reawakened to its glory and leave his beliefs behind. But his faithfulness is inspiring, and the blurring of the two worlds is beautiful. Great story.

  20. By far the best LDS film that I’ve ever seen.

  21. Superb documentary. Indeed one of the best productions in the Mormon film world. Beware: don’t leave the theatre too quickly at the end. Lots of people had already left, thinking it was over, when one of the highlights followed: David Johansen’s rendering of A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief, as final tribute to Arthur Kane. The combination of David’s figure and the hymn is breathtaking.

  22. I just sent an e-mail off to the alternative cinema mavens here in Test Market, Midwest. I’ll keep my fingers crossed. They show lots of good, small films, so I’m hopeful.

  23. Aaron Brown says:

    I’m going to see it tonight, and am dragging the wife and mother along. I can’t wait.

    Aaron B

  24. Aaron Brown says:

    … and by “tonight,” I obviously meant “tomorrow night,” given that I live in Seattle.

    Aaron B

  25. Thanks, Brian. This is a great review. I’m definitely going to see it.

  26. We saw it last night. A wonderful, understated yet very moving, documentary.

  27. My mom’s going! My mom’s going!

  28. I’ve seen the movie twice! First time the former BYU student that made the movie and was Arthur’s hometeacher, Greg Whiteley, spoke after the 7:30 showing of the movie at the Provo Town Cinema. Check it out:

    http://www.onepotatoproductions.com/NewYorkDoll/showtimes.html

    DOC / Orem

  29. DH and I saw it this weekend and we both LOVED it. For some reason, neither of us had made the connection that this was an LDS-themed movie–all we knew was it was a documentary about a rock star who went down, had some rough times, and where he is now, so we were a bit surprised to start seeing ‘I work at the temple’, ‘I called for a BofM’, etc. By the end, though, we were in love with the movie and with Arthur. If it gets further viewing along the Wasatch front, I’d like to know so I can send everybody I know. And when it comes out on DVD, I’m buying. Anybody know the release date?

  30. dennis potter says:

    You are right to give this movie such a positive review. In my view there are three good religious movies this year: Walk the Line, NYD, and States of Grace. However, as one you view the film more from the point of view of the glam punk scene my experience with the mostly Mormon crowd in Provo was less than ideal. They laughed at inappropriate times in ways that belittled the sincerity and lifestyle of the others of the Dolls (especially David Johansen). This was especially unfortunate when Johansen expressed his own sense of spirituality near the end of the movie. I saw him as sincere, but my mostly LDS fellow audience members seemed to mock it. As someone who came to Utah LDS, I now find myself identifying with the faith of a broken rock stars (e.g., the Mayfield Four) more than with the prideful religious in suits and ties. Mormonism is a wonderfully complex religion and Kane’s hometeacher is clearly one of the most loving Mormons around. But many use it as an excuse for exclusion rather than inclusion. The movie was supposed to be about the former, but the audience could help participating in the latter. Ditto for States of Grace. Mormons walked out; but I have never seen a better Mormon film.

  31. Aaron Brown says:

    Dennis –

    While you’re commenting on movie reviews at BCC, please comment on my review of “This Divided State,” particularly given that I talk about YOU therein.

    http://www.bycommonconsent.com/2005/12/my-divided-state-a-movie-review/

    Thanks.

    Aaron B

  32. My bishop took our entire ward to see this movie for Family Home Evening. At first I’ll admit I was a little uncomfortable (I couldn’t help wincing and stealing a look at the Relief Society President when Arthur compared a spiritual manifestation to an ‘acid trip’), but by the end of the movie I felt extremely . . . well, edified. I wish more LDS filmmakers would utilize the documentary genre because it’s a great way (if done right) to get an authentic look at the “Mormon Other.” That is, it’s a great venue for us to look at how Mormonism can and does affect so many different kinds of people. I know this movie helped me have a little better understanding for a group of people I normally shy away from. And in helping me to be more of ‘one heart and one mind’ with someone else in my faith that I might normally resist, it helped bring about a little bit of Zion.

  33. I never wanted to see The Passion of the Christ because I don’t usually want to see the movies of the books I’ve read.

    Brian, how’s it going? I’m going to be in LA Saturday and Sunday night. Jessie (who I sent you the picture of) and I are going on a cruise out of Long Beach Monday (10th). We’re staying at the Marriott, but I know she wants to go to Rodeo Drive and stuff like that (cover your ears, it will be on Sunday). Is there any chance we could meet for breakfast Monday morning? I remember you’re married, nothing like that. I lost your e-mail when I got my new computer.

  34. Anne, ironically Monday morning I will be headed to Utah where I’ll be working for the next couple months, but if your schedule is flexible, drop me a line and let’s see what we can work out.

    brianngibson at gmail dot com

  35. This is available on DVD now. I ordered it from Amazon and watched it as soon as it arrived yesterday. It’s really good.

    And the extras include David Johansen singing “Come, Come Ye Saints.”

  36. Kevin Barney says:

    I found out it was at the Music Box in Chicago too late to see it last year. But I just recently got the DVD and watched it. I thought it was excellent. Thanks for the fine review, too.

  37. D. Fletcher says:

    Susan, you might be interested — there’s a new DVD with concert footage of the New York Dolls, filmed by Bob Gruen. I’m sure it’s been put out to coincide with the DVD of this film.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] By Common Consent Various Stages of Mormondom All Encompassingly. [...]

  2. [...] If you haven’t heard of it, go read Brian’s review here. It’s about Arthur Killer Kane, the bassist of the New York Dolls who converted to Mormonism later in life, and the band reuniting for a music festival in London. [...]

  3. [...] If you remain unconvinced, check out Brian Gibson’s in-depth review at By Common Consent. [...]

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