‘Personality Crisis: One Night Only’ review: Martin Scorsese music doc looks at the absurd and the sublime of elusive, forever cool New York Dolls frontman David Johansen | NYFF
Martin Scorsese has a knack for documenting New York institutions and illustrating the inner lives of the city’s singular characters. From the brash young Mafiosi in Mean Streets to the sardonic Fran Leibowitz in Pretend It’s A City, he finds creative ways to depict the people who feel at home in the absurdity of New York City. In his latest documentary, Personality Crisis: One Night Only, Scorsese and co-director David Tedeschi (editor, George Harrison: Living in the Material World, Public Speaking, Rolling Thunder Revue) capture a man who may be a new character to many viewers, chameleonic rock star David Johansen.
Once the frontman of the proto-punk group New York Dolls, Johansen can now be found for one night only at Café Carlyle. Specifically, Johansen is there to perform on his 70th birthday, January 9, 2020, before cabaret clubs and bars like this one had to shut their doors due to COVID-19. The swanky, jazzy Café Carlyle might seem odd for a Mick Jagger look-alike who once wore latex pants and glitter eye shadow, but Johansen is such a kaleidoscopic character that other places seem to bend to his rules. For this performance, our pompadoured frontman is Buster Poindexter–an alter ego he created in the 1980s. Don’t worry; he isn’t performing his ubiquitous one-hit wonder “Hot Hot Hot.” In a hilarious moment, Johansen states that that song is the bane of his existence. Instead, he’s performing songs written by David Johansen as Buster Poindexter. Based on the film’s title and the description of the act, it may seem like this type of performance could feel convoluted or confused, but it never does. Johansen is too self-assured for that and always himself.
Personality Crisis: One Night Only isn’t just a concert film set in Café Carlyle. Between songs like “Funky but Chic” and “Melody,” Scorsese and Tedeschi incorporate archival footage to track Johansen’s career as a performer and his influence on the music industry. The transgressive energy and wit of his first act, New York Dolls, is perhaps best recounted by Morrissey, the intellectual (and controversial) frontman of the iconic post-punk group, The Smiths. Morrissey was obsessed, with Johansen even referring to him as the teenage president of the New York Dolls fan club in England. In an uncharacteristically earnest interview, Morrissey shares that the Dolls “felt like the answer to everything.” He saw them as a cursed group because every song should have been a single, but they were way too dangerous. Specifically, he describes the androgyny of the group and how taboo that was in the early 1970s. Johansen corroborates this when he describes a time when he was arrested in Memphis for “being dressed like Liza Minnelli.” The New York Dolls were an influential group not just for the innovative sound of their music but also for the fluidity in their expression of gender and sexuality. Johansen shares that he “just wanted to bring those walls down and have a party.” The film knows that this group is still incredibly relevant and can’t be lost to history just because they were ahead of their time.
While many filmgoers know Scorsese for his contributions to narrative cinema (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull), he has always been an artful documentarian. Even in his narrative features, he focuses on the subtlest details that capture the heart of a character. In the same way that we learn about how Paulie Cicero slices garlic with a razor blade in prison in Goodfellas, we discover that Johansen keeps large lyric books that are effectively binders filled with images of icons in the pages between his annotated songs. We see close-ups of his rose-colored sunglasses, stacks of beautiful vintage rings, and packed bookshelves throughout his home. These details paint a vivid picture of Johansen–how he works, thinks about music, and why he is one of the most unique characters ever captured in a Scorsese film. The camera work by cinematographer Ellen Kuras makes the viewer feel like they are onstage with Johansen in a way that feels similar to Michael Chapman’s work in Scorsese’s documentary on The Band, The Last Waltz. Kuras also plays with our expectations and the reputation of Johansen by oscillating between capturing Johansen as the punk rock star he once was and the crooner in the Café Carlyle. She plays with Johansen’s “personality crisis” by capturing his many sides as a performer.
Part of the pleasure of this documentary is that Johansen is a natural storyteller. Onstage at the Café Carlyle, he shares wild stories that are sometimes wholly unrelated to his upcoming songs on the setlist. Scorsese and Tedeschi also include intimate interviews captured by Johansen’s daughter, Leah Hennessey. By having these interviews led by Hennessey, there is comfort and ease on screen. Yes, Johansen is a natural performer, but in these moments, we learn why his life is worth documenting. He speaks about his relationship with Abbie Hoffman and his involvement in the political movement in the East Village during the Vietnam War, his love of Maria Callas, and the wisdom he gained from polymath Harry Smith. Incorporating archival footage, present-day interviews, and concert footage makes the film feel lengthy, but never laborious. It is worth noting that frequent Scorsese collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker was missed on this particular project. They have a unique language on film that could have made the film feel a bit more limber.
Scorsese has always been interested in death, precisely the emotions that take hold when you realize that you’ve outlived many people who were once a part of your life. Early in the film, Scorsese and Tedeschi include Tedeschi’s television interview with Conan O’Brien. Here, Johansen twirls a Dum Dum lollipop and cavalierly recounts a tale of the band’s trip to Newcastle when they were fresh on the scene. He shares that this city was famous for Newcastle Brown Ale, a beer that they could not stop drinking one night at a local pub. The following night, the drummer (hungover or potentially still intoxicated) puked all over his drum set. The band played on, and the crowd thought it was an act of violent punk rock. Later in the film, Johansen shares that there are ghosts in his life, with more friends who are dead than alive. These ghosts include drummer Billy Murcia who died of an accidental overdose and asphyxiation in 1972 and guitarist Sylvain Sylvain who died at home after a battle with cancer in 2021. When reflecting on the early deaths that often occur due to the lifestyles of rock stars, Hennessey asks her father if he was ever afraid of death. He tells her he wasn’t and feels like he never learned his lesson. This film conceivably includes that lesson that Johansen believes he never learned: always honor the ghosts of your past, give weight to their history, and honor their remarkable influence.
This review is from the 2022 New York Film Festival. The film will be released on Showtime on an upcoming, as yet to be announced date.