Thursday, December 1, 2011

DVD Review: New York Dolls: Lookin’ Fine on Television

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2011
Images from the Internet

New York Dolls: Lookin’ Fine on Television
Directed by Nadya and Bob Gruen
MVD Visual, 2011
70 minutes, USD $14.95

The opening shot of this documentary / concert mash-up is of the whole band (early drummer Jerry Nolan era) sitting on a hill in a park (Central? Flushing Meadow?), and lead guitarist Johnny Thunders – long hair aflowin’ with that wisp on top – starts talking about how the band got together by his first meeting bassist Arthur “Killer” Kane, to which vocalist David Johansen gives a snide “That’s not how we started…” As Thunders flicks a ciggy-butt at him, rhythm guitarist Sylvain Sylvain starts in with his own interpretation to the story. Through their thick outer borough accents (Queens, Staten Island, etc.), this complete practice in ridiculousness is the perfect way to start this documentary about arguably (pun intended) one of the most important bands to come out of the New York area in the first half of the ‘70s.

The New York Dolls were tempestuous at best, wasted at worst, and brought something new to the rock and roll table. A mixture of glam, rock, and their own personalities in both style and playing, they are (rightfully) considered influential to nearly every band that came after them, whether directly or indirectly (i.e., influencing bands that influenced others).

As with the ill-fated Sex Pistols tour of the States, noted scene photographer Bob Gruen was along for the New York Dolls’ career ride as they started hitting their stride (just after the passing of drummer Billy Murcia, who is mentioned often in talking head moments, but never seen), as was Nadya Beck, the two directors and cinematographers of this release.

Over the period of a few short years, Gruen and Beck filmed (remember, this is pre-video) the band in performance a number of times on either (or both) 16mm or 8mm. Because of this, we now have a historical document of not only their two official albums of the period (New York Dolls; Too Much, Too Soon), but what they were like in performance as well.

Rather than just showing one version of a set or another, Gruen and Beck took a single live track, and overplays it with footage from a number of shows all cut up together, doing a masterful job of lining up the music with the action, including Johansen’s vocals. By doing this, we have a new soundtrack to our lives (i.e., NYD fans, who are now legion). Plus, we get to see the boys in action with both the consistency of their moves (e.g., clapping above their heads during “Jet Boy”), as well as the originality of others (e.g., standing in different spots). It’s also interesting to compare them then to the newer, reconstituted version of the band of the twenty-first century. Johansen still has the chops, but he’s physically not as limber (and yet is still a joy to watch).

Even for their infamous appearance on the Old Grey Whistle Test programme in the UK, rather than the usual footage that can be seen elsewhere, we get to see it from the side stage through Gruen’s eye.

Between each of the songs (see the list below), there is an interview segment; well, actually it is a few segments that are cut up and put between numbers. Some are of the group, such as the opening salvo, and others include a solo with Johansen (interviewed by Lisa Robinson) in what looks like possibly south Florida or sunny California, where he talks about things like how he makes up the lyrics to “Who Are the Mystery Girls?” each time, riots at shows, and dealing with connected club owners.

Also spiced into the songs are backstage shots of the band, including the girlfriends (Cyrinda! Michelle!), them doing their infamous gangster dress-up, and traveling to California. Also, there’s a clip of Johansen and Dorothy inviting the viewing audience to their Halloween show, followed by both shots of them preparing, and the NBC news report by Tony Hernandez!

In one show, Arthur Kane is shown standing beside the drums, sometimes with Nolan’s girlfriend Michelle, singing along to the songs, but not playing. According to producer/Dictator extraordinaire Andy Shernoff and Austin musician Thom Tex Edwards, it was roadie Peter Jordan, filling in while Arthur’s arm was in a cast.

So, lots of music, some fun stuff mixed in-between, and a document of an amazing band in their prime.

For the extra, there’s an 8-minute clip from 1976 of David Johansen standing outside CBGBs interviewing Lisa Robinson (not the other way around, as it says on the box), completely dissing the club. Then along comes ex-Dolls (by then) member Johnny Thunders who crashes in, giving Lisa an out, and JT and David Jo have a fun time sparing with each other, raising topics like the Heartbreakers, Tom Petty’s appropriation of the name (I had the argument with Petty directly in 1976), and discussing the ‘Breakers upcoming tour in the UK with the Sex Pistols and the Damned (where Nancy Spungeon would show up and…).

Get this. You know Morrissey will…

Lookin’ For a Kiss
Bad Detective
Vietnamese Baby
Bad Girl
Human Being
Private World
Subway Train
Personality Crisis
Who Are the Mystery Girls?
Jet Boy

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