In one of rock 'n' roll's odd trajectories, Arthur "Killer" Kane, bassist for the seminal mid-1970s proto-punk band New York Dolls, wound up in Los Angeles, eking out a modest existence working for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Greg Whiteley's documentary, New York Doll, catches up with Kane in 2004 -- just as he's offered a reunion gig in London with the infamously self-destructive band's other surviving members (there are just two, both long estranged). Kane, now sober and a practicing Mormon, is both thrilled at and terrified by the prospect. But with the financial and spiritual help of -- wait for it -- the elders at his church, he's a Doll again.
The Dolls' history is presented briefly (don't look for much archival footage from the bad old days). Whiteley has easy access to Kane, and follows him through the reunion. He sprinkles Kane's journey with reminiscences from former associates and a string of musicians influenced by the Dolls (many apparently caught on the fly backstage at the London show). In contrast to those grizzled vets -- an aged who's-who from your dad's punk-rock collection -- are the interviews with Kane's clean-cut, earnest co-workers at the LDS temple, who speak of his wild past with benign abstraction.
There's no hint of Kane's former debauchery or rage. He is self-effacing, humbled, sweet and, one suspects, still deeply sad. Though tall and lanky, Kane comes across like a scared rabbit. Parts of Doll are the familiar cautionary tale of show-biz screw-ups, but the film is also about redemption, about one man's struggle to reconcile the past -- a past that was both troubled and briefly glorious.
There will always be something not quite right about reuniting long-gone bands, especially outside the context of their origins. One fears that pantomime re-enactments of the glory days will simply reveal the participants as pathetic. But for Kane, the journey is deeply cathartic, and Whiteley has had the good fortune to capture the intimate moments with his camera. While we may cringe at the sight of these former bad boys -- now middle-aged men -- shrieking on stage, it's unmistakable that the event restores the frail Kane's dignity.
The film holds one last bittersweet chapter for Kane, but his victory is still won. Never mind his former band-mate Johnny Thunders' infamous refrain: You can put your arms around a memory.