''New York Doll" is the latest entry in that growing field of scholarly endeavor called (by me, anyway) Punkology: music documentaries about the bands that broke rock history in half during the 1970s. There has already been ''The Filth and the Fury" (about the Sex Pistols), ''End of the Century" (the Ramones), ''Punk: Attitude" (everybody): all worthy of study. Now comes this almost ridiculously adorable tale of a man, a Mormon, and the bass player for one of the groups that started it all: Arthur ''Killer" Kane.
Not that either Kane or the New York Dolls lived a life free of catastrophe. The Dolls may have pioneered punk chords and trash couture back in 1972 -- several years ahead of the CBGB's pack -- but their original drummer didn't survive the group's first British tour, and both his replacement (Jerry Nolan) and the Dolls' founding guitarist (Johnny Thunders) were dead of drug excesses by the early '90s. Kane, better known for looking like a cross-dressing Frankenstein monster than for his fairly modest bass skills, survived -- but just barely.
Lead singer David Johansen later found fame as Buster Poindexter (remember ''Hot Hot Hot"?) and opposite Bill Murray in ''Scrooged," but the biggest film role Kane got after the Dolls broke up in the mid-'70s was as an extra in the 1987 sci-fi comedy ''Innerspace." By then, alcohol and drugs had taken their toll, and the musician fell out of a third-story window and into a hospital bed for a year.
So far, so very ''Behind the Music." While hospitalized, though, Kane sent away for a book on the Mormons he saw advertised on TV. ''They don't send it," he recalls in the film. ''They bring it." This led to a religious conversion described by Arthur as ''an LSD trip from God" and eventual employment in the church's Family History Center in Los Angeles.
And this is where ''New York Doll" finds Kane: a balding gentle giant in short sleeves and necktie, unfailingly polite behind his librarian's desk and speaking as if life has kicked him in the head once too often. Director Greg Whitely, a filmmaker who met his subject through the church, neither plays up nor puts down their shared beliefs, and the result is that rarity, an unhysterical American film about religion.
As an American film about rock history, it's frequently hilarious. The Dolls were, in the words of one fan, a ''blighted band," and the name of their second album said it all: ''Too Much Too Soon." Whitely sketches in their impact on both sides of the Atlantic using a dandy graphic rock tree that I for one would like to pin to my kids' wall. Would there have been a Ramones or a Sex Pistols -- and all that followed -- without the Dolls? Perhaps, but they would have looked and sounded a lot different.
Chrissie Hynde, Iggy Pop, the Clash's Mick Jones, and Sir Bob Geldof are called upon to testify to the band's wayward greatness, and the Smiths' Morrissey goes one better: He answers Arthur's prayers and arranges for a New York Dolls reunion at the 2004 Meltdown Festival in London.
Will Arthur make it? Can he still play? Will he be able to meet David Jo without ripping his face off? ''How can I go from the Family History Center to the Royal Albert Hall?" Kane himself asks the director before heading off to reclaim his bass from the pawn shop. His co-workers are delighted, if mildly shocked. ''I can't believe I know a rock star," says Sister Miller.
The ensuing concert is both a triumph (available separately on DVD and excerpted here) and the occasion for a deeper sadness, that of boys who thought they'd never die and men glad to just have one more shot. Kane's encounter with a modern hotel suite is played for sweet-faced comedy, and his explanation of the finer points of Mormonism to a straight-faced Johansen is a stitch (on tithing: ''It's like an agent's fee").
You're left, though, with the bewilderment and joy on Kane's face as he plays the old songs, and the sense of ghosts just behind his back. There are three surviving Dolls, but as Arthur says, ''The other three are onstage, too." Perhaps he has reason to know. The late Johnny Thunders didn't write ''You Can't Put Your Arms Around a Memory" until after the Dolls had broken up, but this lovely little heartbreaker of a movie takes the sentiment as its own.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.