Last weekend my family celebrated Mother's Day by watching "New York Doll" together over dinner. I had been getting consistent endorsements for the documentary for several months, and was happy to find that the hype was well-deserved.
"New York Doll" is the documentary chronicle of an ex-punk rock pioneer named Arthur "Killer" Kane as he goes from cross-dressing punk bassist to down-and-out alcoholic to temple-worthy volunteer at the local LDS family history center. It's every bit as fascinating and bizarre as the previous sentence indicates. In fact, the most compelling element of the film for me was the stark contrast between his eventual humble persona and environment to the third circle of rock and roll hell he emerged from.
This contrast also illustrates one of the film's greatest strengths, which is to portray both sides of Kane's life with equal respect. It's not, "rock and roll is evil, and now Kane is redeemed", nor is it, "hail, hail, rock and roll; look at what a dork Kane turned into." There is an obvious awkwardness between Kane's two worlds, but Kane's ward members fully support his efforts to reunite and play with his surviving bandmates, and in spite of a few playful jabs at Kane's new clean lifestyle, you get the sense that the rock and roll crowd respects the path he's chosen.
I'm sure a few of them wish they could have taken the same path. If there's one stark impression I left the film with, it was that everyone connected to "the business" winds up looking like a beat-up old shag carpet. Everyone except Morrissey, that is. He seemed to be holding up OK.
I first learned about the Dolls in a History of Rock and Roll class at the University of Utah six years ago, but I had no idea about Kane's conversion. Even so, I think I was even more shocked to learn that the Dolls frontman was the same guy that did that "Hot, Hot, Hot" song under the name Buster Poindexter. Now THAT was weird.
Since the documentary ends with Kane's unexpected death--from lukemia--the whole story ends on a somber, but almost cosmic note. It's hard to argue that the man had been preserved at the end for the exclusive purpose of getting together with his old friends and patching up old wounds. With that background, the footage run through the credits becomes all the more hypnotic--frontman David Johannsen and a friend playing an acoustic Bob Dylan-styled version of "A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief".
A perfect ending for a documentary that lives up to the hype.