Personality Crisis: One Night Only

Martin Scorsese and David Tedeschi recount the history made by David Johansen and the New York Dolls.

It could be said that David Johansen comes in all shapes and sizes: the chameleon, the showman, the mover and shaker.

For whatever reason his career fails to parallel any other musician’s career. From fronting one of the most influential rock bands of all time whilst at the same time arguably creating a genre itself (a nice reference to this at end of the film) in the New York Dolls, to a semi successful solo career under his own name throughout the late ’70s and deep into the precarious ’80s whilst creating a super funky alter-ego in Buster Pointdexter at the backend of the era. Here he left every trail of ‘David’ behind, which took his frame of success through larger doorways, mostly through the cover of Hot Hot Hot, piercing the cultural zeitgeist, which in this very document proceeds to amusingly disown it.

Personality Crisis: One Night Only (great title, great song and even better usage of the term that would go on to define him throughout his career) successfully blends together all these personas and more in Martin Scorsese’s (with David Tedeschi) latest stylish documentary/concert film, adding to his rather impressive line of music docs recently with Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue and George Harrison’s Living in the Material World.

Personality Crisis: One Night Only differs greatly and offers itself up as a bit of mishmash, from an impressive amount of varied footage fleshing out his different sides, to highlighting the many transformations of Johansen to recent interviews to concert footage of him playing lounge act tunes in Buster form, with a backing band offering laid back renditions of his songs at the super intimate venue of the Café Carlyle in New York. This was filmed in 2020 on his seventieth birthday prior to the pandemic.

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Scorsese, who in his twilight years is still making quality films (can’t wait for Killers of the Flower Moon!), knows better than to play it straight. Here he creates atmosphere. There’s always an opportunity to move the things forward, and it is him that continues to play with the art form, not wanting this to feel like a run-of-the-mill documentary, but what it would be like to coexist with it.

Better yet, this kind of project seems like a long time coming for Scorsese; someone who is intrinsic to the culture of New York through his films just as Johansen is to the history of the music scene. Synonymously whilst the ’Dolls were releasing history in 1973 with their debut album, so was Scorsese with Mean Streets – a film that would go onto cement him into one of history’s great filmmakers. It’s no shock that at one point Scorsese would comment on how the sheer audacity and rhythmic pulse of Personality Crisis would inspire that very film in that very year. This to me is that encapsulation of sound and image.

The film does an excellent job of celebrating Johansen, however it flourishes when it probes the subject and asks its many questions, such as losing band members at a younger age and how did it change his approach to life (I think you know the answer), and discussing Morrissey and his part in the ’Dolls history to commenting on the disappointment when the band didn’t match the success of other American acts such as Kiss and Aerosmith in which his answer is ‘we were a band’s band’. To me this is the central theme to the whole account; a guy who in the early ’70s wanting to bring all fabrics of life together, breaking down barriers which ultimately went against them almost immediately due to their radical look and lifestyle choices. While ambition never really earned the household name status he probably deserved, that’s okay: cult-like figures have their place, too.

While you may have a favourite version of Johansen, Buster Pointdexter may not be a cup of tea for the ’Dolls fans – you can’t say that in whatever format or version you didn’t tap your toe to at least one of his ditties – but here tonight he’s a delight as he dips into the songbook of his other self.

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Concert-wise, the band who are known as the Boys in the Band, featuring Brian Koonin, Keith Cotton, Richard Hammond and Ray Grappone, skilfully run through varied versions of tracks like his self-titled release and one of his most successful hits, Funky But Chic, to material off later day New York Doll’s releases, Making Rain from 2009’s Cause I Sez So, and then the OG’s output with stripped down Lonely Planet Boy. It’s clean, pleasant, and again stylish for newcomers and old timers.

Whilst this is no New York Dolls show, the lounge-y vibe allows access to the man himself, someone who has lived through it all, sharing wonderful anecdotes with sharp humour knowing where he originated from to what he still is now. Scorsese delivers such a beautiful, raw and important portrait of a varied career, and in the words of Steven Morrissey – what he liked about the ’Dolls was that they were dangerous and whilst the aesthetic played into that, it’s worth mentioning that no original member is alive, Johansen the last man standing must feel that to this day.

Personality Crisis: One Night Only is out now via Showtime.

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