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The man who stands before you on screen is not the same one you used to know. The man you see in New York Doll, the touching, triumphant documentary film from first-time director Greg Whitely, works as a mild-mannered library clerk with two sweet old ladies who have no idea what a phenomenon he and the Dolls were way back when. And he's a Mormon.
Yes, you read that right. Kane, the same lanky cross-dresser who provided the muscle for the Dolls' raw, gloriously trashy rock 'n roll mayhem had been saved by the Church of Latter Day Saints after a misguided suicide attempt put him in the hospital with a shattered kneecap and elbow. Salvation came after he answered an ad he found in that week's TV Guide. When two missionaries showed up at his hospital room one day that was it: Kane converted.
That's just one of the odd twists Kane's life takes as New York Doll unfolds. The heart of the 80-minute story is Kane's remarkable recovery and his transformation from a bitter, self-destructive alcoholic who was jealous of David Johansen's post-Dolls success into a devout Christian living paycheck to paycheck in an L.A. hovel. Working for the Lord in a Mormon family recovery center gave Kane the inner peace he craved, but what he lived for, what he clung to for years, was the hope that one day the Dolls would reform. Enter Morrissey, who was curator for the Meltdown Festival in England and had promised a Dolls reunion show at the event. The literary dandy who once fronted the Smiths delivered, getting the surviving members together for one last blast.
New York Doll follows Kane as he prepares for his first concert with the Dolls in some three decades. The cameras are there when Kane, with the help of donations from the church, gets his bass guitars back from the pawnshop where they've been for years. Living on disability checks in a tiny apartment, Kane was never able to save the $262 he needed to get them back. The degree of relative poverty in which Kane has been living is duly illustrated when he gets to England and, glowing with excitement, marvels at the hotel accommodations. A fascinating character that exudes sincerity and genuine warmth, Kane is someone you root hard for, and it's so satisfying to see him live the dream that he has been chasing.
Revealing, poignant interviews with church leaders, co-workers and Kane's Mormon sponsor - the people who had performed the salvage work on Kane - draw a portrait of a broken man who had been put back together again by faith but who still needed a reconciliation to be made whole again. The Meltdown Festival gave him that chance. The scenes of a bewildered but happy Kane rehearsing with guitarist Sylvain Sylvain and Johansen are funny, joyful and, dare I say … heartwarming? Then there's the sweet interaction between Kane and the Mormon sisters he works with at the recovery center, where he explains to them what a bass player's purpose is. The two women giggle like schoolgirls when the director suggests they might become Dolls groupies.
True Dolls fans, and even casual ones who've been paying attention, know how this story ends. I'm not going to reveal it here. Suffice it to say, New York Doll is a charming, guileless tale of a gentle soul experiencing a mid-life crisis and finding redemption in one of the most surprising rock 'n roll comebacks in music history. The concert is a smash and a humbled Kane, unfazed by the newfound attention given him, basks in the afterglow. It's clear that reconnecting with Johansen was important to him and seeing it happen is one of those feel-good cinematic moments that leaves a lasting impression.
Though Whitely himself is a Mormon and the role religion played in Kane's awakening is central to the film, his treatment of the subject is far from heavy-handed. The proselytizing is limited, and because of that, Kane's story bears a more powerful witness to the life-altering effects of religious conversion. And yet, it takes rock 'n roll to make it a slam-dunk. To his credit, Whitely doesn't give that short shrift. Throughout the film, Whitely practices incredible diplomacy, bringing the two seemingly disparate worlds together in a way that makes it seem like they aren't so different after all. Interviews with rock legends like Mick Jones, Chrissie Hynde and of course, Morrissey, are interspersed among heartfelt talks with those Mormon friends and teachers that have worked to keep Kane on the straight and narrow, and you get the feeling they're all working in concert to see that Kane gets his most fervent wish to come true.
New York Doll is an amazing accomplishment for Whitely, and the DVD is a must-have for Dolls devotees - the vintage concert footage is fantastic - and Smiths fans alike, seeing as how a full 20-minute interview with Morrissey is included among the extras. It's a kind film, one that records the sins of a flawed yet tender man without passing judgment and offers awed tribute to a band that always seemed to be unjustly overshadowed by its peers, like T. Rex and the Stooges. If nothing else, New York Doll gets the Dolls justice and for that, it should be canonized. SEE ALSO: www.newyorkdollmovie.com
Peter Lindblad lives in Appleton, Wis., and bleeds green and gold just like all the Packer fan nutjobs in the area. He does draw the line at wearing blocks of chedder on his head, or any other body parts for that matter, though. His professional career has taken weird twists and turns that have led him to his current position as an editor at a coin magazine. He hopes his stay there will be a short one. Before that, he worked as an associate editor at a log home magazine. To anyone that will listen, he'll swear that Shiner was one of the greatest rock bands to ever walk the earth. Yet he also has much love for Superchunk, Spoon, DJ Shadow, Swervedriver, Wilco, Fugazi, Jawbox, ... And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, Queens Of The Stone Age, and Modest Mouse, among others.
See other articles by Peter Lindblad.
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