After I watched the film New York Doll at the Detroit Film Theatre on December 8, 2006, the warm afterglow of this poignant movie helped shield me from the sharp chill of the winter evening. I turned on the car radio, and there was John Lennon on WCSX (94.7 FM), singing “Watching the Wheels”, as part of that classic rock station’s tribute to Lennon, who was shot to death 26 years ago on December 8.
It struck me that Lennon’s lyrics were very similar to the message of New York Doll. Resolution…moving forward…acceptance…trying to make a new life for yourself after the glory days of your rock’n'roll experiences had passed their peak.
New York Doll was about rock musician Arthur Kane, who had the nickname “Killer” when he played bass guitar for The New York Dolls in the early 1970s. The movie showed him 30 years later, working as a copy machine repairman in Los Angeles. Kane had also found some peace of mind with a commitment to Christianity through the Mormon church.
The film also chronicled a 2004 reunion of The New York Dolls that was much more than an ego/money-driven return to the concert circuit. It showed how several members of an influential rock band could overcome tragedy and personal differences to reconnect through the medium that originally bonded them—music.
I came to this film expecting a rock’n'roll performance movie, similar to the David Bowie film Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars that played at the DFT on January 20, 2003. On that memorable evening, the packed house at the DFT became a concert hall, with people cheering, yelling and clapping their hands loudly above their heads.
Instead, I participated (with many other middle aged audience members) in a retrospective look at a unique era in rock history. I’m sure we all brought our own interpretations to what we were seeing.
The New York Dolls
The impact of the New York Dolls might be more symbolic than actual, with only two albums that didn’t sell very well when they were released. In the early 1970s, the Dolls applied their own unique edginess to a combination of the hard rock energy of the Rolling Stones and the gender-bending theatrics of Bowie, Alice Cooper and Elton John. Later, the Dolls were proclaimed a forerunner to the punk rock of the late 1970s.
The most enduring quality of the New York Dolls seemed to be a willingness to stretch the boundaries of a musical form, to push towards some unnamed ideal. I don’t know their music that well, and their outlandish outfits now look kind of silly, but I do understand why many rock fans admire their musical accomplishments. In the 1980 book The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll, John Rockwell wrote, “Ahead of their time, loved within New York but hated or ignored without, the Dolls stood as a proud contradiction to all that was soft and safe in the commercial rock of the day.”
The film New York Doll creatively used performance footage to enhance (but not replace) the narrative, especially in quick cuts between videos of the original and reunion bands performing the same song. It showed the power of film to chronicle change and help us see more clearly what was going on with the Dolls in the early 1970s and what’s happening now.
But viewers of this movie will probably most remember the childlike innocence and clarity of Arthur Kane. I was touched by Kane’s humanity, and his heartfelt Christian prayer before the reunion performance was one of the most touching moments that I’ve ever seen on film.
Who couldn’t empathize with his struggle to find meaning in life? Like the fine Neil Young documentary from earlier this year (Heart of Gold), New York Doll showed how life continues forward, relentless and inevitable. The past can only carry you so far. All of us—rock stars or not—are sooner or later faced with the same question: What next?
Copyright © 2006 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.