Personality Crisis: One Night Only
by Hope Madden
David Johansen may not be the first name you associate with New York City, but why not? The Staten Island native has been a fixture of a teeming NYC Avant Garde since his teens, even before he launched perhaps the city’s first punk rock band, the New York Dolls.
Martin Scorsese, directing with longtime collaborator David Tedeschi, captures both New York and live music as only he can with the Johansen documentary, Personality Crisis: One Night Only.
Filmed in January, 2020 – Johansen’s 70th birthday – at Café Carlisle, the show sees the finely-coiffured troubadour fronting a jazzy combo, still the hippest guy in the room. Interviews, concert clips and other archival footage flank selections from a classic cabaret act.
As has been the case with all of Scorsese’s music docs, Personality Crisis is heavy on music. We’re treated to complete songs, Scorsese’s camera lingering on the Johansen’s snapping fingers, a great over the shoulder shot continually glimpsing an intimate club space filled with well-behaved, well-dressed patrons.
Because Johansen “was in no mood for learning new songs,” he performs old, mostly Dolls tunes in the style of Buster Poindexter. Of the many brilliant ideas to pour from this two-hour testament to punk spirit, the decision to perform Dolls songs as cabaret standards is perhaps the brightest and best.
Plenty of punk bands have taken on pop classics, giving them a dangerous spin. But very few punk songs stand up to more popular, lyric-focused stylings. But as Dolls superfan Morrissey points out early and often in this doc, Johansen wrote incredible pop songs.
As much as I hate to agree with Morrissey, he’s right. There’s no denying the introspection, pain and poetry in Johansen’s lyrics.
Plenty of Music, Funky but Chic, Temptation to Exist, Subway Train, Better than You (even though he forgot the lyrics), and, of course, Personality Crisis take on the rich, boozy texture of the cabaret style and tell you more than they did the first go-round.
Maimed Happiness transcends time entirely, feeling more at home in the mouth of a septuagenarian than it ever did a teenaged punk.
Tedeschi also edits this film, having worked with Scorsese on Shine a Light, and George Harrison: Living in the Material World . He mines for gold, not only onstage, but in the archives. From old interviews to intimate family footage shot by Johansen’s daughter, Leah Hennessey, to clips from his Sirius satellite radio show, we’re treated to a glimpse of a life richly, and sometimes dangerously lived.
Johansen’s an onstage charmer, but more than that, he’s a vibrant ghost of New York past.