Written by Daniel Fienberg, The Hollywood Reporter
Partway through Martin Scorsese and David Tedeschi’s Personality Crisis: One Night Only, David Johansen muses on the irony of a VH1 special on one-hit wonders in which he was featured separately for his Animals medley, recorded under his own name, and for the immortal “Hot Hot Hot,” recorded as Buster Poindexter.
How can a person be a one-hit wonder twice over and also, as a founding member of the New York Dolls, the frontman for one of the most influential rock bands of the past 50 years? It’s fitting that Scorsese and Tedeschi have titled their documentary about Johansen Personality Crisis. Sure, it’s also the first track on the first New York Dolls album, but it’s still fitting because the documentary is a portrait of reconciled identity. It’s a connecting of dots between a member of a band, a solo artist, an alter ego and a man who, now in his 70s, feels no responsibility to commit to being any single one of those things
There are aspects of Johansen’s life and artistic history that some people are likely to find unexplored or under-explored in Personality Crisis. But it’s a documentary of sterling musical moments and clever connections between culture and the city that all the principals here so clearly adore.
The documentary is built around a January 2020 — Johansen’s 70th birthday, it turns out — show at the Café Carlyle, an intimate Upper East Side Manhattan venue that only holds 100 and on this occasion looks to have been packed with friends and loved ones — some quite recognizable.
One of the first songs performed in the concert, which Johansen loosely themes as “Buster Poindexter sings the songs of David Johansen,” is the New York Dolls’ “Plenty of Music,” with its lyric, “I feel exiled from the divine, me and these sad friends of mine.” But much of the documentary’s poignancy is that despite the friends he’s lost along the way, Johansen is possibly more connected to and surrounded by the divine and by music than ever before.
Scorsese is, of course, a filmmaker with an impeccable intersection between eyes and ears and, as he has always done in his concert films, his sense of where to place the camera is uncanny. It’s much easier here than when documenting The Band’s career-capping ballroom show or a Rolling Stones stadium tour. It’s a small venue and a small stage, but the directors have an innate sense of when to let viewers experience the moment as a member of the audience and when to give the kind of proximity you could never get just buying a ticket.
Johansen isn’t the same performer as he was in 1972 or in 1982 and one of the filmmakers’ best tricks here is, whenever possible, cutting between performances of the same songs from different career moments, from the confrontational proto-punk to the strutting rocker to the performative lounge lizard to the current incarnation, a reflective combination of everything that came before.
The son of an opera singer, Johansen has music in his DNA and the documentary makes room for filmed performances from the likes of Maria Callas and John Cage, as well as teenage New York Dolls devotee Morrissey. It’s easy to come away feeling that the purest evocation of David Johansen may not be any of his singing personae, but his gig as host of the Sirius radio show Mansion of Fun, which lets him play whatever he wants to, while noodling philosophically between tracks.
That’s a bit like what the directors here are doing. Somewhat similar to the template Scorsese established on The Last Waltz — my non-controversial choice as the best concert movie ever made and my somewhat more controversial choice as Scorsese’s best film — Personality Crisis keeps each Café Carlyle performance complete and uninterrupted and maintains some of the likably meandering patter from the stage.
In between songs, though, it’s a more traditional bio-doc driven by archival interviews with Johansen, as well as insightful current conversations conducted by… I’m not sure who. Is it ace cinematographer Ellen Kuras? Or Johansen’s daughter Leah Hennessey, a director herself? Unclear, but Johansen is generally in fine form looking back over the influences and opportunities that shaped him.
Given the filmmakers involved, it’s no surprise that Johansen and the documentary are deeply invested in the combination of neighborhoods that shaped the Staten Island-raised singer, whose identity is as much of a melting pot as the city itself.
There are places Personality Crisis could have dug deeper. As a Freudian slip, Johansen refers to his “bisexual” residency at the Café Carlyle and it’s Morrissey who connects the New York Dolls to “transgender issues.” But other than linking the band’s attire to thrift-shop convenience, Johansen only circles the role that gender identity has played in his artistic identity.
He isn’t evasive at all about his hatred for the popularity of “Hot, Hot, Hot” and he never has been. But as an ’80s kid whose first connection with him was as Buster Poindexter and who only learned about the New York Dolls decades later, the success of that character and his subsequent place within Johansen’s career is more interesting to me than the film has time to depict.
At 127 minutes, Personality Crisis is already on the over-filled side, so I guess it comes back to my favorite refrain: This could have been a TV series. Since Scorsese chronicled Fran Lebowitz first in Public Speaking at feature length and then a decade later in the more New York-centric Netflix series Pretend It’s a City, perhaps he’ll do the same with Johansen after this affectionate primer. Something built around Johansen’s New York and Mansion of Fun would be perfect.