They are consistently name-checked when the origins of punk are discussed. Their music mocked the surging glam rock revolution sweeping Britain while tapping into the urban angst explored by Iggy Pop and his seminal Stooges. They were flamboyant and flash, breaking down barriers of sexuality and social relevance, and they wrote some wonderfully rocking music along the way. Yet the New York Dolls were destined for failure. Radio wasn't ready for guys dressed like gals spewing cosmopolitan cool over '50s revival rock chords, nor was their image properly positioned for the 'just getting over the '60s hangover' headlines. By the time the Ramones reinvented their sound and headed down the road to timelessness, the Dolls were a defunct joke, a soon to be forgotten fluke that never amounted to much in the shifting modern music scene. Photographer Bob Gruen is out to change all that. On the landmark DVD presentation All Dolled Up, he gives us a unique view of the band, as well as the necessary contextual insight to reestablish their credentials as legends.
Along with his wife Nadya Beck, Gruen was determined to capture the group on their road to stardom. Out of the over 40 hours of Dolls footage documented, the pair has now produced All Dolled Up. More a look at the band live than a detailed documentary on their origins and career, this is a technically twonky but historically meaningful musical travelogue. The couple followed the group from their regular Big Apple haunts to an eye-opening journey to the Left Coast. Shortly after this skirt up and down the Pacific, the Dolls would begin to implode, befuddled by bad management, personal problems and unachieved goals. It's a shame, really, since the video showcases a formidable rock and roll force. It is also obvious that their lack of greater mainstream success had nothing to do with their sonic chops. Like the technology capturing their grandeur, the Dolls were destined to be ahead of - and still a little behind of - the times.
Not that the new video technology helps matters much. Highly reminiscent of The Blank Generation, the out of sync film that focused on CGBGs and the growing punk movement in the mid-70s, the dull, poverty row monochrome imagery doesn't do the group anything but a grand disservice. Sure, the rarity of such a recording is part of its patina, and the ability to see the boys interact with a gritty and grimy Manhattan is priceless. Yet the club performances, full of sweat and heat, are like adventures in archival averageness. Drained of their color and left to surviving on the band's own magnetism and moxie, we get a very mixed sonic signal. The Dolls appear as good as everyone who references them says they were - an unusual combination of chords, chaos and chutzpah. But without the actual denotation of time - something black and white washes out of an image - this could be any unknown band, pounding away on a home turf stage, waiting for their moment in the mainstream sun. Sadly, such recognition never came to the Dolls, and it makes these musical memories that much more distant and disconnected. Had they been more than an influential force for the future, maybe they wouldn't seem so locked in the lost legacies of popular culture. This vaulted video only confirms that.
Still, All Dolled Up is an amazing bit of performance happenstance. Without Gruen and Beck's desire to experiment with the latest technology, had the Dolls been bigger than their local NY roots, had a more mercurial management stepped in and stopped the illegal taping of their act (think of how corporate and cutthroat today's musical groups are), we wouldn't have this anarchic artifact. Indeed, much of the sound made in the early part of the 70s - from the end of the hippy movement to the start of punk - seems to have vanished in a haze of AM radio hits and Dick Clark declared stardom. All the other groups grinding out a living on the outskirts of the social norm - the Dolls being perhaps the biggest example of this - are forgotten and faded from view, left to be lamented or laughed at as memories only. But thanks to video, and its new portability, the Dolls get a chance at resurrection. Indeed, even the most casual fan, or music minded person who knows of Johansen, Thunders and the boys from the numerous mentions elsewhere, will find a brand new appreciation in what the Dolls do/did. Songs like "Personality Crisis", "Trash" and "Who are the Mystery Girls?" literally come alive, far more powerful and potent than what the band was relegated to when placed on vinyl.
Indeed, what makes All Dolled Up an exceptional document of the New York Dolls is that is lets the music do the talking. Sure, we would love to hear about how Thunders discovered the joys of junk, and spent more time with a needle in his arm than playing guitar. We'd rejoice in seeing the remaining living members dish the dirt on those no longer around to defend themselves. We want to hear blame spread and grudges glorified. Instead, what we get is what makes a life in rock and roll the ultimate fantasy. Whether it's in front of a packed New York club crowd, or a barely stirring California collective, the Dolls melded their differing sonic styles into a glam slam whole that broke up the whole acid rock revolution and spit back the paisley pieces. It borrowed the spaced out spunk of Bowie and his brethren and gave it a notorious nasal Big Apple twang. They reinvented rockabilly and perverted power pop. The result was a heady combination that sounded surprisingly similar and yet unlike anything around at the time. Without Gruen and Beck we'd be stuck with a purely oral history of the band. All Dolled Up offers a chance to witness the wildness, the weirdness and the wonderfulness first hand. The image may be sub-par, but that's the only underwhelming aspect of this performance peek into a lost legendary act.