Paint a Vulgar Picture
Surely there have been filmmakers who knew less about music going into their first music documentary than Greg Whiteley, but none springs to mind. (Ken Burns, maybe? Nah.) When Whiteley met Arthur Kane in the Mormon temple both attended in L.A., he had never heard of the New York Dolls. His decision to film Kane after Dolls fanatic Morrissey made a reality of the former bassist's pathetic dream of a band reunion was, it turns out, fortunate. Still, one wonders whether Whiteley has absorbed how frequently those who taste a moment of pop fame obsess on it ever after. Or that Kane's fame was only an intimation of the stardom he never got near. Or that Kane was easily the least talented of the Dolls.
"Arthur couldn't breathe and play bass at the same time," someone says early on, whereupon someone else explains that this is literal--Kane would take a deep breath, play a barrage of notes, stop, take another breath, etc. Kane's technique did improve. But his limitations were a precondition of the punk forcebeat; he influenced Dee Dee Ramone, who had more chops, and Sid Vicious, who didn't. Towering mute and motionless in his platforms and tutus, clueless and awestruck and scary and lovable and proud, he completed the chemistry of a great band. But despite helpful interviews from an honor roll of old new wavers--Iggy, Chrissie, Mick (Jones), Sir Bob--who attended Morrissey's Meltdown Festival, Whiteley is too clueless himself to do more than surround any of this, and barely hints at Kane's pre-Dolls youth. Instead he mixes some Punk 101 into the story of a failed rock-and-roll hero whose life was saved by Joseph Smith.
Fortunately, this improbable protagonist is immensely touching whether taking the bus to his menial job at the Mormons' Family History Library or modeling a long concierge's coat in London. He loves the autograph hounds, the pecks on the cheek, the hotel room, the "delicious" food at (what someone else calls) a "hideous" banquet. Whiteley will have your sympathy describing Kane's 1989 conversion, and explaining how Kane's faith helps him allay his insecurities and get his guitars out of hock. When the bassist leads the band in a rather lengthy prayer before they embark on one of the most enthusiastically received reunion sets in history, you'll be damn glad everyone says amen.
Other subtleties, however, are lost. For someone who knows the Dolls' history, it's easy to imagine Kane both intimidated by and infatuated with the effortlessly charismatic David Johansen, who took over the band Kane had named in 1971 and dominated them till they disintegrated circa 1976--and thus to understand both his paranoid resentment of Johansen's post-Dolls stardom (which never exceeded cultdom) and his relief that Johansen loves him as warmly and sarcastically as ever (which no one else would have doubted). But that doesn't mean it'll get through to the average Punk 101 student. In the end, this is less a film about a rock and roller than a film about a Mormon. And Napoleon Dynamite it ain't.
Village Voice, Oct. 18, 2005