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Rock 'n' roll religion

A documentary covering punk legend Arthur "Killer" Kane shows conversion of a different sort

Issue: "Living a legend," Aug. 19, 2006

While the culture shock caused by Bob Dylan's 1979 emergence as a born-again Christian could have been measured with a seismograph, few noticed the emergence of the former New York Doll Arthur "Killer" Kane as a Mormon 10 years later. Nevertheless, as Greg Whiteley's New York Doll reveals, the aftershocks of Kane's spiritual odyssey have only now begun to reverberate.

Shot and edited with artful concision and nominated for a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, the 80-minute film chronicles a year in the life of Arthur Kane who, as the bassist of the notoriously outrageous New York Dolls in the early '70s, played an important role in shaping punk and heavy metal-and who as a poverty-stricken alcoholic embittered by his band's failure to receive their financial or critical due leaped from a second-story window in 1989.

The leap turned out to be one of faith. While recuperating from his injuries, Kane replied to an ad for the Book of Mormon, whereupon he was visited by what he describes in the film as "two beautiful blonde missionaries" who helped usher him into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

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The film's subject, however, is not Mormonism. Although several of Kane's Mormon friends speak, they emphasize little in the way of LDS doctrine. Rather, the film focuses on the "answer" to Kane's prayer that the three surviving New York Dolls reunite after 30 years. "I didn't want the film to be a propaganda piece for the Mormon church," Whiteley, a Mormon himself, told WORLD. "[Mormonism] is an interesting, colorful religion full of nice, well-rounded stereotypes that I could play against. But to me [Mormonism] wasn't what the film was about. Arthur could've been any religion in this film, and you'd still have a compelling story."

The story is compelling in large part because Kane himself emerges as a sympathetic, even tragic, figure. Clearly ravaged by years of self-abuse, he speaks with shell-shocked reticence, humble sincerity, and gentle humor. (He refers to himself at one point as having been "demoted from rock star to schlep on the bus.") Even viewers with no interest in the intersection of religion and rock 'n' roll will find themselves moved.

Of course, being intimate with rock 'n' roll helps. Among Whiteley's interview subjects are Bob Geldof, the Pretenders' Chrissie Hynde, Iggy Pop, the Clash's Mick Jones, and members of Blondie, people whose status as musicians influenced by Kane renders their affection for him, and therefore the film itself, more powerful. What ultimately emerges is the sense that, whatever his transgressions, Kane deserves a second chance.

That chance eventually comes in two forms: his employment in an LDS family-history center, which gives him something constructive to do with his weekdays as well as a steady if small income; and the prospect of a New York Dolls reunion.

At this point in the film, the pacing accelerates as Whiteley and his crew follow Kane to New York for a week of rehearsals and then to London for a whirlwind of promotional activities. Whiteley asks that the ending not be given away, the better for viewers to experience the film's denouement the way that the filmmakers experienced it themselves. In treating not only Arthur Kane but also the often mutually antagonistic realms of rock 'n' roll and religion with love and respect, Whiteley has provided an aesthetically and culturally beneficial service. Christians, meanwhile, will be reminded that the harvest is still truly plenteous, the laborers still few.

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