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Tender film on former 'Doll' has Seattle roots

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On his first day of services at a Mormon church in Los Angeles, Greg Whiteley didn't recognize the soft-spoken, middle-aged man named Arthur.

How would he? This was hardly the same Arthur "Killer" Kane with the enormous hair, skin-tight leotard and feather boa who once played bass for glam rock pioneers The New York Dolls.

Fortuitously, the church connection forged a friendship that would five years later culminate in a critically acclaimed documentary about Kane's life. "New York Doll," playing at the Northwest Film Forum on Capitol Hill in Seattle through Thursday, is both a touching paean to Kane and a universal tale of lost dreams and hope, of friendship and redemption.

Filmed last year, the documentary looks at Kane's life of sad obscurity three decades after drugs and booze broke up the short-lived but highly influential Dolls in 1975. After a drunken fall from a third-story apartment and the subsequent demise of his marriage, Kane turned to religion and found solace in the Mormon Church, taking a bus each day to his job in the church's Family History Center library in Los Angeles.

Intensely lonely and without a family, Kane longed to reunite with his former band mates. Guitarist Johnny Thunders had died of an overdose, and a stroke killed drummer Jerry Nolan. Only two were left, guitarist Sylvain Sylvain and lead singer David Johansen.

"I never had a conversation with Arthur without him expressing that deep desire to reunite his band," said Whiteley, 36. "It was to a degree that I thought was unhealthy."

In the spring of 2004, Kane's prayers were answered when Morrissey, the former front man of The Smiths, asked the surviving Dolls to perform at a festival in London. Whiteley decided then to document the experience, recruiting friends Seth Gordon and Ed Cunningham to collaborate on what would become his first feature-length project. All three have Northwest roots -- Whiteley and Gordon graduated from Interlake High School in Bellevue and Seattle's Lakeside School, respectively, and Cunningham, a college football announcer for ABC Sports, played center for the Huskies when the team shared the 1991 national championship.

"It was such an interesting premise that we all sort of dropped what we were doing and started working on it immediately," said Gordon, 29, who previously taught film at Garfield High School in Seattle. "It's something I feel happens very rarely, that someone gets to return and live a dream."

On the first day of filming, Whiteley drove the 55-year-old Kane to a pawnshop to retrieve his guitar with $230 provided by his friends at church. As the concert drew closer, Kane told Whiteley of his apprehension about reuniting with Johansen, whose musical and film success as the party-happy "Buster Poindexter" had created in Kane a long-simmering mixture of envy and intimidation.

The filmmakers had their own reasons to be apprehensive -- the trio hadn't played together in almost 30 years, and no one knew whether Kane's long-anticipated dream would become a musical nightmare.

Kane's reunion with Johansen, sweetly captured as the two hug in a New York rehearsal space, went smoothly. The rehearsals did not, but Kane was unfazed. "He was a strange collision of both humility and this really amusing sense of entitlement and confidence that he was part of the greatest rock band that ever lived," Whiteley said.

The Dolls ultimately did not disappoint, playing on June 16, 2004, to a crowd of enthusiastic fans at London's Royal Festival Hall in a show critics hailed as "a sensational comeback." In the film, rock royalty including Chrissie Hynde, Bob Geldof, Iggy Pop and Mick Jones from The Clash talk of the Dolls' enormous influence when the musical landscape of the early 1970s contained little but progressive rock and heavy metal bands. With their big hair, campy outfits and transvestite makeup, the Dolls were a breath of fresh air that influenced successors for years to come.

After the London show, Cunningham, who was put in charge of lining up interviews for the film, positioned himself at the only entrance and exit to an after-party to catch musicians. "I just blocked the door," said Cunningham, 36.

"A couple of them had some hesitation -- (asking), 'What are you about and what are you after? Are you just about the death and the drugs?' After they realized that we were just after Arthur's story, the walls just fell."

The exception was Morrissey. The singer-songwriter rarely gives interviews, and it took the filmmakers nine months to persuade him. When they finally got the go-ahead, Whiteley and Cunningham spent four days compiling their questions, going over their footage and taking notes to determine what they needed. Right before the interview, Morrissey's manager walked in and told the filmmakers they had 15 minutes. A shocked Whiteley dropped his papers on the floor.

But the 18 minutes they ended up with were golden. "Every single second of that interview fit perfectly somewhere in the film," Cunningham said. "It's almost as though he knew the story our film was out to tell and he knew intuitively what would help it."

The overall project was similarly seamless, Whiteley said. The film crew traveled to London on Cunningham's air miles and used $50,000 from investors to rent equipment and buy a computer for editing. They submitted a rough cut to organizers of the Sundance Film Festival, explaining in a letter that the interview would be added later. "By some miracle," Whiteley said, the film was accepted.

The night before the premiere, in January, Whiteley and Gordon hurriedly finished editing, and Whiteley boarded a flight to Park City, Utah, submitting the film before they had time to view the final version. Sitting in a packed theater with some of the nation's biggest film critics, Whiteley was on edge. What if they hate it, he thought? But the audience laughed at the right moments and, at the end, applauded loudly.

"It was remarkable," Whiteley said. "There was a line around the block from the movie theater of people trying to get into our film. We were blown away. ... You work for eight solid months around the clock, putting in all these hours, and you never know what kind of return you're going to get on your investment."

"New York Doll" quickly attracted a North American distributor, and others followed in Japan, England and Australia. Critics have called the documentary a "surefire crowd-pleaser," "a charmer" and "a tender take on life after stardom."

Whiteley is now working on a feature film and a documentary about the world of high school debate, and Cunningham and Gordon are collaborating on a project about devotees of classic arcade games.

And Kane? Some reviews have revealed how his story ends, and are best avoided by anyone intending to see the film. Suffice it to say that the man once known as Killer Kane has had a lasting effect on the filmmakers.

"I don't think any of us haven't been changed pretty drastically as people going through (the documentary) process," Cunningham said. "I feel so lucky to have gone on Arthur's journey with him, and I feel like I'm still on a journey because of it."

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