Martin Scorsese isn’t just a great dramatist; he’s also an exceptional documentarian, especially when it comes to music, as proven by The Last Waltz, Shine a Light, George Harrison: Living in the Material World, and his two Bob Dylan efforts, No Direction Home: Bob Dylan and Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story. Now add to that impressive list Personality Crisis: One Night Only. The dynamic and affectionate non-fiction film covers the life and times of David Johansen, the groundbreaking and multifaceted lead singer of seminal glam punk band The New York Dolls who later fronted The Harry Smiths and performed under his alter-ego alias Buster Poindexter. Rock ‘n’ roll portraits this vibrant, introspective, and nimble don’t come around very often.
Co-directed by David Tedeschi, Personality Crisis: One Night Only (April 14 on Showtime) pays tribute to its subject’s diverse career and personality without resorting to archival-clip overload. It revolves around Johansen’s January 2020 show (on his 70th birthday) at New York City’s Café Carlyle, a swanky jazz cabaret whose stage features a backdrop of famous Marcel Vertès murals and whose audience includes friends such as Debbie Harry and Penny Arcade. Backed by The Boys in the Band Band (Keith Cotton, piano; Ray Grappone, drums; Richard Hammond, bass; Brian Koonin, guitar), Johansen rolls through a collection of catalog hits and personal favorites with easygoing bon-vivant cool. Decked out in a black suit, white shirt, and sunglasses—his frame as thin as his goatee, his pompadour still cresting like a wave, and one hand clutching the mic and the other snapping and waving in time with the beat—he’s at once high-wire lively and wistfully soulful; a seasoned troubadour in his element.
Collaborating with terrific cinematographer Ellen Kuras, Scorsese and Tedeschi shoot this concert from a variety of largely static camera positions that provide total coverage and immerse viewers in their exclusive setting; whether gazing at Johansen in close-up or from afar in this confined space, Personality Crisis: One Night Only has the intimacy of a private show. The film’s editorial structure (courtesy of Tedeschi) gives the material a silky, dance-like quality that’s in tune with Johansen, who swings and sways with the casual elegance of an artist who’s done this before and relishes the opportunity to do it again. From the moment he launches into “Funky But Chic,” he’s a crooner alive, and for the remainder of the evening, he never seems anything less than comfortable and delighted to be belting out tunes that have meant something vital to him and, also, to the legions of fans who’ve followed him along his unpredictable journey.
Chief among that group is Morrissey, who in old interviews admits that he was the teenage president of the New York Dolls’ U.K. fan club. To him, the Dolls—a breath of dangerous fresh air in a “blighted” early ’70s pop music scene—seemed like “the absolute answer for everything.” A ragtag rock outfit that dressed like women, used hard drugs (resulting in original drummer Billy Murcia’s untimely death), and wrote scuzzy songs that Morrissey claims were all “hit singles” in disguise, they were the progenitors of modern New York punk. In a hilarious clip from Late Night with Conan O’Brien, Johansen says that if one wants to “bring it down to a moment in time,” the birth of the movement can be traced to an early Dolls show in Newcastle at which the consumption of too much brown ale led to a torrent of mass puking by musicians and attendees alike.
The Dolls’ boundary-pushing style and sound were propelled, according to Johansen, by a desire to “bring those walls down and have a party,” and Scorsese and Tedeschi convey that spirit by routinely leaping between the past and the present—sometimes via mid-song cuts that magically bridge the distance between the two. Johansen’s punk legacy is on energetic display, but so too is his fondness for ballads (“Heart of Gold”), the blues (“Poor Boy Blues”), and for swing, the last of which reached its apex with his 1987 Buster Poindexter smash single “Hot Hot Hot,” which he admits (during one of many around-the-house interviews with daughter/filmmaker Leah Hennessey) became so ubiquitous that it’s now “the bane of my existence.” In various additional chats (including while hosting his eclectic radio show “Mansion of Fun”), he also expresses his lifelong affection for opera and, in particular, for Maria Callas—a passion inherited from his father, who used to sing it while doing repairs on their home, much to the adolescent Johansen’s embarrassment.
Amid his concert’s varied numbers, Johansen (both on stage and in prior interviews) reminisces about his early experiences growing up around St. Marks Place and in the Chelsea Hotel (with the likes of bohemian polymath Harry Smith) during Manhattan’s Lower East Side counterculture heyday—a time and place that shaped him, and then was shaped by him. Personality Crisis: One Night Only isn’t arranged chronologically but it never feels scattered; there’s a beauty to the way in which it ebbs and flows in harmony with Johansen’s conversational anecdotes. From his love of “intelligent ridiculousness” (which led him to the city’s Theatre of the Ridiculous), to his belief that music should have a fun, devotional element (since, as he says, it’s all about “playing”), to his on-the-air statement that “aestheticism and eroticism are two sides of the same coin,” the singer’s artistic ethos shines through, as does his sense of humor, epitomized by a lengthy story about his failed attempt to get cast in Milos Forman’s Hair.
Johansen is an amalgamation of many disparate influences and interests, and Scorsese and Tedeschi capture his complexity with sure-handed grace. Personality Crisis: One Night Only is a celebration of an inimitable voice who helped define multiple generations’ worth of rock, and though Johansen himself admits that—despite the Dolls’ brief tenure and lack of mainstream recognition—he’s comfortable knowing that he paved the way for others’ success, a slight melancholy hangs over these proceedings, as it does with so much of the singer’s finest work. That mixture of the high and the low, the euphoric and the downbeat, is central to Johansen’s music and life, both of which he ably sums up when, while DJing, he muses, “When there’s time, there’s sorrow… but we can choose to live in joy.”