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Filmmaker's 'New York Doll' is more than a 'rockumentary'

Greg Whiteley's 'Doll' is about man he home taught, rocker Arthur "Killer" Kane.
Greg Whiteley's 'Doll' is about man he home taught, rocker Arthur "Killer" Kane.
August Miller, Deseret Morning News

Greg Whiteley says his film "New York Doll" has already been a success — even though it's only been playing theatrically for about a week in New York and Los Angeles.

The movie is a documentary about the late Arthur "Killer" Kane, the former bass guitarist for the glam-punk act New York Dolls who converted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"New York Doll" was a big hit at this year's Sundance Film Festival, where screenings of the film sold out quickly. Whiteley said he was "blown away" by the reaction "Doll" got at the festival.

"I wasn't even sure my movie was going to get into Sundance," Whiteley said by phone from his Los Angeles home, "and the next thing I know people are telling me it was their favorite thing they saw there. It was completely crazy."

In fact, even months later, the film still has "legs." Whiteley he has been besieged with with e-mails from fans who have seen the movie. (He says it may have been a mistake to include his personal e-mail address on the official Web site,

"New York Doll" opened to strong critical reviews and several sold-out screenings this past weekend in New York and Los Angeles; the film opens locally today. "It's been very encouraging so far, and there's no telling when or where this whole roller coaster ride is going to end."

Whiteley, who graduated from Brigham Young University in 1995, met Kane when he became his home teacher (someone assigned to make monthly visits to specific LDS neighbors). Whiteley was surprised to find that the mild-mannered, somewhat shy Kane had at one time been "a cross-dressing, glue-sniffing glam-rocker."

But realizing a prime opportunity when he sees one, Whiteley began filming interviews with Kane about his experiences as a musician, as well as his conversion to the LDS Church.

And when Kane reunited with the group's other two surviving members (singer David Johansen and guitarist Sylvain Sylvain) for a set of Dolls' songs at the 2004 Meltdown Music Festival, Whiteley knew he was on to something special.

"Things kept happening that told me someone or something wanted this story to be told — ridiculous kinds of things," he said. "Seriously, you couldn't possibly come up with anything crazier than this."

Speaking of craziness, as Sundance wound down in January, Whiteley found himself courted by several would-be distributors for the movie, including the fledgling First Independent Pictures. "We were being wined and dined, though I was ready to make the deal after the first meal."

Gary Rubin, First Independent's chief, clearly "got the movie." Whiteley said: "He understood that this wasn't just a rockumentary. There was a lot more to it than that. It's about Arthur's spiritual journey."

Securing the necessary musical clearances for songs and performances seen in the film has taken several months, which Rubin and First Independent have used to find innovative ways to market the movie to audiences. And the film has special interest in Utah, because of its strong LDS thematic material. So First Independent has joined forces with Vineyard Distribution on local marketing.

"I hope I'm not jinxing it, but I think it will do well there," said Whiteley, who said he is aware that there have been criticisms of other LDS films for being too "warm and fuzzy." "Mine outdoes all of them for being warm and fuzzy — and it's a documentary," he said with a laugh.

While Whiteley is busy touring the country with the film, he said he is mulling over a few future projects, though he added that he has been so close to the film for so long that it "feels like cheating." Not that it's stopped him from having discussions with producers and studios about a possible follow-up — though "mostly they just want to tell me that they loved the movie."

One of the more intriguing possibilities Whiteley is entertaining is a feature film based on Kane's life (Kane passed away before "New York Doll" was completed). But rather than a traditional feature, Whiteley is envisioning something along the lines of "American Splendor," which combined documentary footage with actors doing scenes from the subject's life.

But he adds, "I really don't believe that I — or anyone — could make a strictly fictional film about Arthur that would be any better than this one turned out."