Greg Whiteley pulls off a rare documentary feat in New York Doll, his tender, scrappy portrait of Arthur "Killer" Kane, bassist with the early '70s glam-punk band the New York Dolls: He surprises you with his ending. Kane died at age 55 in a Los Angeles hospital on July 13, 2004, just a few hours after checking himself in with what he took to be symptoms of the flu. In fact, Kane had leukemia.
The bassist's death was well reported in the media. The month before, he had reunited with the surviving Dolls (guitarist Syl Sylvain and singer David Johansen) for the band's first gig in 30 years, at English pop star Morrissey's behest. The show, part of the annual Meltdown festival at London's Royal Festival Hall, was rapturously received by critics and fans alike. "Age has not withered them," wrote Caroline Sullivan in the Guardian, voicing an opinion that was widely echoed.
So the sad surprise that concludes New York Doll is not a product of our casual relationship with the fact of Kane's demise. His was not a death that went without notice, nor was it like Timothy Treadwell's in Grizzly Man, in which the graphic nature of the dying itself upends our knowledge of it from the beginning of the film. Rather, our surprise is due to Whiteley's handiwork in capturing the essence of a man as beautifully broken as Kane--a man who relocated his will to live so close to death. Through Whiteley, Kane lulls us into forgetting that he has died.
To be sure, part of Whiteley's trick is the access that Kane granted him. When we meet the bassist, he's complaining about how long it takes to get from Santa Monica to Hollywood on the city bus; Whiteley tags along as the carless Kane makes the mass-transit schlep to the Los Angeles Regional Family History Center, where Kane works alongside his fellow Mormons making copies and filing genealogical records. He lives in a crappy apartment and appears to live a life defined by memories and menial responsibility. Kane makes no effort to disguise the nature of his world, recounting in detail his descent into addiction, his estrangement from his fellow Dolls, and his joining the Mormon Church (a spiritual awakening that began with a late-night TV spot). Compared with Johansen, a straight shooter but also a master of showbiz shuck-and-jive, Kane is excruciatingly honest. Few rock stars describe the shittiness of their furniture as openly as Kane does.
New York Doll follows Kane as he prepares for the band's reunion in London, with archival and talking-head footage--including interviews with Chrissie Hynde, Morrissey, Mick Jones of the Clash, and Iggy Pop (caught shirtless and sweaty outside his tour bus)--sketching in the details of his and the Dolls' history. A week of rehearsals in New York is particularly revelatory. Whiteley is there as Johansen shows up for practice (after the singer missed the first day's session) in a hilariously cramped Manhattan rehearsal room; the awkward tension between the frontman and the bassist, who since the band's dissolution had come to believe that Johansen had it in for him, is almost visible. Yet the ill will dissolves instantly as the two embrace for the first time in decades. The three original Dolls fall into their old rhythms--Sylvain, for better or for worse, seems not to have dropped a beat since 1977--a mutual bonhomie that stretches to the band's arrival in England, where Kane marvels at the standard-issue mahogany desk in his standard-issue hotel room.
Whiteley's affection for the bassist never curdles into condescension, though Kane's behavoir might justify such a change. After Kane expresses his admiration for the hotel bellhop's uniform, Whiteley warmly presents him with one donated by the concierge. Backstage a few minutes before the show, Johansen ribs Kane about Kane's religious beliefs, yet Whiteley resists taking an editorial side in the debate, neither demonizing Johansen's big-city cynicism nor propping up Kane's innocent naiveté. He simply gives us Kane--a formerly hard-living rocker turned mild-mannered library clerk--as he is: a guy whose pastor worries that a return to a nine-to-five existence may disappoint him.
Unfortunately, Kane never got the chance to be disappointed. Whiteley limits his postmortem action to a few tributes from peers and fans, as well as a little harmonica tune that Kane had performed for Whiteley's camera in front of the Mormon center in L.A. It's likely not the ending the director originally envisioned, but a sad little one that serves his big-hearted film just fine.