Sunday, October 01, 2006

New York Doll

Exclusive: Greg Whiteley on New York Doll
Source: Edward Douglas
October 28, 2005

The last few years have seen many great documentaries about punk and rock bands. There have also been a number of fine films made by members of the Church of Latter Day Saints, including the indie hit Napoleon Dynamite. When you think of the New York Dolls, the seminal punk band often better known for their drugs and debauchery than their music, could you ever imagine that a documentary about them might be made by a Mormon?

Then again, Greg Whiteley's New York Doll is not your typical rock doc. It's more about the former bass player of the band, Arthur "Killer" Kane, and his quest for redemption and a second chance at the rock 'n' roll dream. After the New York Dolls broke up in the '70s, Kane's life spiraled to rock bottom until he found God in the form of the Mormon Church, and as if by divine intervention, Kane was given another chance to play with the Dolls when the band reunited for a one-off show in London at the behest of Morissey.

It's such a fascinating story on so many levels that when Whiteley came to New York to premiere the film, sat down to talk with him about Arthur Kane and the movie about him.

CS: How did you originally meet Arthur and decide that he would make a good subject for a documentary?
Whiteley: I was a grad student in film school in Los Angeles, and I showed up for my first Sunday in this congregation. This guy, who I had met there that day and was sort of giving me the lay of the land leaned over and said "Oh, by the way, that guy right there used to be in the New York Dolls." I knew the name because I loved the Clash growing up, and I loved the Ramones. The guy was just very quiet and unassuming, and just over the time, we became friends, and as I got to know Arthur over the course of four years, we would meet roughly once a month, and he would just tell me this fascinating story almost chapter by chapter as to how he got where he was. As a graduate film student, I had no interest in making documentary films, but I thought I could make this guy's life into a screenplay. He came to me about four years later and said "Hey, you know my band is going to be reuniting next month," and that just seemed bizarre to me that this band, where two to three of its prominent members had died, were going to be reuniting. So I just grabbed a camera and started there.

CS: So you weren't familiar with the music of the New York Dolls beforehand?
Whiteley: No, I wasn't familiar at all. Over time, Arthur would feed me little bootleg clips. The interesting thing was that he didn't even have his own music on CD. He would have to go and buy bootleg versions of his own stuff in order to have it on CD, and he would share that with my wife and I. That was my introduction to the New York Dolls' music.

CS: When did you finally decide to make a film about Arthur and his life leading up to the band's reunion?
Whiteley: The Sunday after he told me his band was reuniting, he called and asked me if I could give him a ride to the pawnshop, because some members of the Church had loaned him some money. I just brought this camera I had bought, and I just started filming it. The whole time I'm filming, I was thinking that it was so hurried and I didn't have a tripod, but I'll just shoot this now so I can get an idea what it's going to be like to make a movie about this. I didn't know where it would go, but I thought at the very least, I'll have something nice that I can give him as a gift. Nobody at church knew of his rock star past, so maybe we could show them and they'd get a big kick out of it. It just grew and grew and grew from there. I tell you…everything we shot we used. I had all these great stories that he told me, but we hadn't shot any footage until that time.

CS: You were able to get a lot of great interviews with people who were around during the Dolls' heyday. Did you have to do a lot of traveling to get to them?
Whiteley: All these people traveled to where the Dolls were performing, so we went to London and we got half the interviews there. A guy named Ed Cunningham, who is a good friend of mine, we just put him in charge of rounding up famous looking people at the after-party of the Dolls show in London. We just lit a room, and Ed would grab people by the scruffs of their necks and plop them down, and we would fire questions at them until they figured out we were nobody. It was Mick Jones, Chrissie Hynde, Bob Geldoff, just name after name. We couldn't believe our luck.

CS: But didn't you have to get signed releases afterwards?
Whiteley: Yes, that was the pain. If I could go back and do anything over again, I would have them sign right there, because then it was just a chore to track down their agent. Once they found out who the project was for and what it was about, that it was about this guy Arthur Kane, not just a rockumentary about a band. They were all familiar with Arthur's story, and they just were extremely generous in helping us out. Especially Morrissey. That guy just doesn't do interviews. He loves the New York Dolls, and he had a special affection for Arthur. He just wanted to help us out.

CS: How about getting the interviews with the bishops at the Church? Was it hard getting them to talk?
Whiteley: They loved Arthur and they loved what had happened to him. They really thought this was amazing, and so, they were extremely supportive, and not just with their time, in terms of interviews, but just anything they could do to help.

CS: How did you go about finding all of that archival footage of the band?
Whiteley: There's two people: Nina Antonia, who wrote the book "Too Much, Too Soon," and Bob Gruen, who lives here in New York, who actually has a DVD coming out of some archival stuff that he had shot of the Dolls. We read [Nina's] book and when we were in London, we set up an interview with her. She had all kinds of people that she could put us in touch with that had archival footage of the Dolls., and then you can read about old television appearances and write the BBC or this German television show where they appeared.

CS: After the big concert, there aren't as many interviews with Arthur. I was wondering if Arthur talked to you at all about his future and how he was feeling after the big show?
Whiteley: You know what was funny? Two things. He had a very strange sense of entitlement. As humble and grateful as he was for all this happening, he really acted as if this was meant to be. Yeah, this is the way it should be. Now his expectations moving forward past the concert, I don't think he knew, but I think he really believed. Over the four years I knew him, he ached for the New York Dolls to get back together. He really believed that if they only could get back together and play a gig, that they would take over the world again, at least the world that they once claimed back in the '70s, so I believed that he had those same aspirations. I think he really thought that they would just continue to tour. He did express that he felt a little tired and wasn't sure if he could keep up with it. When we were heading over to London, he said, "Look, the whole thing is starting over again. There are going to be fans sleeping outside of our hotel rooms, groupies. We're going to be in limousines." Even as he's saying it, even after the reunion had been announced, I thought that they're probably going to put him in a Motel 6. There's not going to be groupies. It's going to be one show. But I was wrong, and he was right. They put him up in this fabulous suite, and they were in limousines, and they did have these girls fawning all over them again.

CS: Was he at all worried about going back to the Dolls' might affect his new lifestyle, considering the band's notoriety for drugs and debauchery?
Whiteley: Well, I think that's why he wanted to get back together. I think he wanted to do it right this time. I think he felt that the drugs especially killed the band, literally, and he really felt that if they ever got a chance to go back and do it again, they would do it right. I do think privately that he was concerned. He asked the Bishop for a blessing before he went back to London, and I happen to think that part of the reason why he wanted me along filming was just to be there for some support and help. That was a life that represented some tough times for him, and he did not want to repeat them.

CS: Did you film the whole concert and do you think we'll see more of that on the DVD?
Whiteley: Yeah. Sanctuary released a concert DVD, but they did a traditional concert video. We easily could with the footage we had, but there are no plans. We ended up flying two more cameramen, and we were doing the concert video, and we were backstage and we were onstage. There'll be some goodies on the DVD.

CS: One of the amazing things about the concert is when you're cutting back and forth from the concert to them playing the same song on television back in the '70s. How did you pull that off?
Whiteley: There's a guy I edited the film with named Seth Gordon. He's just gifted. Also, and not to take anything away from him, it was surprisingly easy. Thirty years later, they maintained the same spots on stage, they moved the same way, the tempos of the two songs were not too dissimilar, and they repeated a lot of the same gestures. There's a moment in "Jet Boy" where the band claps with the audience to the tempo, and Arthur is playing bass, stops, puts his guitar pick in his mouth and begins clapping. He did it that exact same way in '73 as he did it last year.

CS: Do you have any reaction to Village Voice music critic Robert Christgau's criticism of the film, saying that someone who wasn't a fan of the band shouldn't have made a documentary about them? [Note: Greg hadn't read the review yet, so I had to paraphrase it for him.]
Whiteley: I think if you are a Dolls aficionado, this film is not "Filth and the Fury" for the Ramones. This film is completely different. This is not a rockumentary. This film tells the story of one guy. I'm not showing you ancient archival footage of the Dolls that perhaps you've never seen. We show you some pretty rare stuff, but that wasn't our aim. I mean, something truly remarkable happened, and I documented it. Curiously enough, at Sundance, we had Dolls' fans coming up to us and saying that the film was amazing.

CS: But did you become a fan of their music from working on the movie?
Whiteley: Completely. We became absolute fanatics about the New York Dolls. I did not understand their place in rock history before we began the project, but in our research, there are people that were extremely helpful to me—Ed Cunningham, Seth Gordon and my wife Erin among them—who fanned out and pored over tons of old footage of them, old tracks that were not released. There's a cut of this film that we have that is essentially a rockumentary that tells Arthur's story in it, and it just blows. We thought that it really was a glorified VH-1 "Behind the Music," and we didn't want that. So we just went back and told the film that was strictly from Arthur's perspective and what happened to him, and included only as much New York Dolls as we could to help you appreciate why Arthur would want to reunite that band. What I think is interesting is if you put a camera on somebody who was once famous, who lives this normal life now, it becomes both funny and sad and poignant. In Arthur's case, he was the perfect documentary subject, because he seemed to lack that edit button in his head where he would check what he was saying. He was a complete open book without shame.

CS: Christgau's comments got me thinking a bit. I wondered how you felt about how Mormons were perceived by those who don't know much about the faith?
Whiteley: I can't escape the fact that if I'm telling Arthur's story, he is in fact a Mormon. That is how I met him and how it began. I'm not attempting to persuade anybody to be or not be a Mormon in the film. I do think that there is a Mormon stereotype that Mormons bristle at a little bit, almost as if we're Amish, not to slight Amish people by putting it that way. I think it would stand us as a culture to embrace that a little bit and have fun with it. I think Jews and Catholics do it well. I just don't think we've been around long enough to get comfortable enough in our own skin to poke fun of the things that are worthy of poking fun in our culture.

CS: Do you think this movie is something that can be appreciated by those who follow the faith as well as rock and Dolls' fans?
Whiteley: I'm not quite sure how they're promoting it. Spin and Rolling Stone are obviously interested in the film because of the New York Dolls factor. The caveat to that is that it's not a rockumentary. It's a story about this guy, who happened to be a punk rock star. The problem is that it's an independent documentary, so major publications like Time and Newsweek need to wait until the film gets bigger first. The distributors have a hunch that people that are not necessarily rock fans would be very interested in this film, and we found that to be the case in our screenings. How do you rollout a film that has a sexy element like the New York Dolls? I think people who know the New York Dolls will like the movie, but how do you get the other people who would also enjoy seeing this film but are not necessarily rock genre fans and wouldn't go see a rockumentary?

That's a good question and one that might be answered when New York Doll opens today in Los Angeles and in New York at the Angelika Film Center. If you're able to make it to the latter, you can meet Greg for yourself, as he'll be doing a Q&A at the 5:30 and 8pm screenings tonight.

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