Nearly a decade ago, Martin Scorsese cast an actor to play the young David Johansen in Vinyl, his 2016 short-lived television series set during the glam rock era of the early 1970s. Now he turns his lens to the real deal with Personality Crisis: One Night Only, Scorsese’s first feature documentary since 2019’s Rolling Thunder Revue and co-directed by editor David Tedeschi. Using a January 2020 Johansen performance at New York’s Café Carlyle – on the singer’s 70th birthday, yet – as a base, the film flits back and forth through time to tell Johansen’s story from his childhood on Staten Island to his days fronting the legendary protopunk band The New York Dolls and beyond, a lively snapshot of a fabulous 50-year career.
The title, of course. Comes from one of the Dolls’ signature tunes. While David Johansen performing as Buster Poindexter performing the songs of David Johansen, the conceit of his Café Carlyle show, might seem like the definition of a “personality crisis,” what is manifest in this wildly entertaining documentary is that crisis of personality has never been an issue for Johansen. He is all personality, warm, witty, and wise as a septuagenarian on his SiriusXM podcast and in conversation with his daughter, Leah Hennessey, and virtually jumping out of the screen as a young man whether performing with the Dolls or in early interviews.
The Café Carlyle performance captures Johansen in fine form, masterfully interpreting his catalog and as an ace raconteur relating stories of his life between songs. The New York Dolls footage interspersed with this is stunning, demonstrating exactly how and why the band was so influential on the glam and punk movements and making the case for how contemporary it remains. Heck, these days they would be banned in Florida, Texas, and other states for their outfits alone let alone lyrics that would make Moms for Liberty types squirm.
Scorsese and Tedeschi don’t stop with just the bookends of Johansen’s career but also delve into his work with The David Johansen Group, his blues band The Harry Smiths, the birth of his pompadoured alter ego Poindexter (just don’t ask him to play his hit “Hot Hot Hot”), and the second 2004-2011 iteration of the Dolls.
Seeing Johansen’s various iterations on stage and in videos is glorious. He is a consummate showman even when simply standing and holding a drink. But Personality Crisis’ secret sauce is Johansen’s vivid memories related in that purring growl of a voice. Scorsese and Tedeschi have made a wonderfully vivid documentary of someone for whom the word “icon” actually fits. But be forewarned: This is a film that will leave you jonesing for Johansen to bring his Café Carlyle show to your own town. – Pam Grady
Personality Crisis: One Night Only available on demand and on Showtime as of 8pm, Friday, April 14.