Arguably most recognized — the face, if not the name — for his turn as the Ghost of Christmas Past in Bill Murray's holiday perennial "Scrooged," David Johansen is primarily a singer and writer of songs (though not what you'd call a singer-songwriter). As the frontman of the influential if commercially unsuccessful band the New York Dolls; creator of the more successful, less influential tuxedoed Buster Poindexter; a solo artist with a rock band and a cabaret artist backed by a jazz combo, he's kept busy from the early 1970s into the early 2020s — well known in certain circles, but not widely famous.
Showtime's "Personality Crisis: One Night Only," co-directed by Martin Scorsese and David Tedeschi, aims to close that gap. As a longtime chronicler of New York City cultures and characters, with several rockumentaries under his belt — "The Last Waltz," the Rolling Stones' "Shine a Light," "George Harrison: Living in the Material World," two Bob Dylan films, "No Direction Home" and "Rolling Thunder Review" — Scorsese would seem to be the man for the material. And he co-created the calamitous HBO music business series "Vinyl," in which the Dolls figure as cred-lending historical window dressing. And, of course, he's a longtime chronicler of New York City cultures and characters, fictional and non-, from Travis Bickle to Fran Lebowitz. He's on home ground.
It comes together in spades in the winning "Personality Crisis," and in the equally attractive person of Johansen, a nexus of Manhattan alternative scenes. It's the rare rock doc that includes nods to a cast as varied as this: folk archivist Harry Smith, opera singer Maria Callas, Warhol-orbit superstars, Abbie Hoffman, Milos Forman (Johansen auditioned for the film of "Hair"), topless avant-garde cellist Charlotte Moorman and Charles Ludlam's Ridiculous Theatrical Company, where a young Johansen sometimes did lights or sound (when he was awake for the cues) and even appeared onstage.
The Dolls filtered the Stones' rockified R&B through a New York brand of thrift-store glam — "We had to buy women's clothes to look like rock stars," Johansen remembers — and incidentally set the stage for punk rock. (They were briefly managed by Malcolm McLaren before he midwifed the Sex Pistols, a career moment omitted here.) As was largely true of glam, whose feather boa androgyny the Dolls embraced, and punk, whose ecstatic amateurism they anticipated, their music provided a joyful, nonjudgmental, noncategorical gathering place for those who elsewhere felt judged, categorized or in need of joy. "I just wanted to be very welcoming," says Johansen, "'cause the way this society is, it was set up very strict — straight, gay, vegetarian, whatever. ... I just kind of wanted to kind of like bring those walls down, have a party kind of thing."
As in "The Last Waltz" and the Dylan films, Scorsese hangs the history on a concert — here, a 2020 performance at the Cafe Carlyle, where Johansen has performed over the years, a place of grown-up entertainment for grown-ups, most famously associated with the late standards singer Bobby Short. (A story, not told here, has Short and Marlene Dietrich going to see the Dolls at the Mercer Arts Center, where Dietrich dubbed the band "punk rock"; it might be apocryphal, but given long historical context of New York uptown going downtown, or farther uptown, for entertainment, it does make perfect sense.) With the sensitive backing of his the Boys in the Band Band, Johansen assumes the look and style of his conventionally elegant, pompadoured alter ego, Buster Poindexter — whose "Hot, Hot, Hot' was the singer's biggest hit and the "bane" of his life — in a program of David Johansen songs, including material drawn from the '70s Dolls songbook, their 21st century reunion (initiated by Morrissey, formerly the president of their U.K. fan club) and the singer's solo career.
What becomes clear in this rendition is the quality of his songwriting. For fans who only know early "hits" — "Personality Crisis" and "Trash" and "Jet Boy," seen in archival clips — the surprise may be in the strength of the ballads. Johansen is one of those singers, to be a little paradoxical, who is technically better and more versatile than he sounds. His voice has always been a bit of a foghorn — higher or lower according to age, habits and the song at hand — but it has a rare emotional urgency. The tidier, mature rearrangements of numbers shambolic in their recorded youth are made without irony, getting to their emotional core.
The music reflects the person: thoughtful, erudite, what one might call impishly melancholy. ("We can't rid the world of sorrow," says the singer, "but we can choose to live in joy.") Some prior knowledge of Johansen's history may be useful — you will get more of an impression of his life and work than a thorough accounting — but what "Personality Crisis: One Night Only" lacks in factual detail it more than makes up for in raw charm.
And as the subject says, "It's best to leave an incomplete picture of yourself."
'PERSONALITY CRISIS: ONE NIGHT ONLY'
Running time: 2:07
How to watch: Showtime
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