Martin Scorsese is often associated with genre films, particularly gangster
movies probably because of the massive success of Mean Streets (1975), Good Fellas (1990), Casino (1995), and
Many don’t know that Scorsese is also a first-rate rock music documentary maker.
Some of his notable music docs include No Direction Home (2005) and
(2019) which were both about Bob Dylan; Shine a Light (2008) about the Rolling
Stones; and the George Harrison doc, Living in a Material Wor
ld (2008). But most importantly, he made perhaps the finest music film of all
time, The Last Waltz (1978), chronicling the monumental final concert of The
Band, which many see as the symbolic end of the 60’s.
Scorsese’s newest film, Personality Crisis: One Night Only, recently released on
Showtime, is about a lesser-known figure in rock history who was much more
important and influential than his record sales would indicate.
Personality Crisis puts the spotlight on the dynamic David Johansen, the lead
singer of the glam/proto punk band the New York Dolls. They were just
essentially copying the Stones, trying to revive the two-minute single and they
ended up pioneering both punk rock (which broke out a few years later) and what
came to be known as hair metal in the 80s. The rock critic Legs Mc Neil who
co-created Punk Magazine said, “The moment the Dolls broke up, that’s the point
when glam rock died, and punk started.”
Despite their limited chart success, without Johansen and his fellow Dolls there
might not have been any Sex Pistols, Clash, Ramones, Guns and Roses, Kiss,
Television, Talking Heads, Patti Smith, Motley Crue, Twisted Sister, Hanoi Rocks
or quiet Riot.
In the film, Johansen discusses his experiences working in the Theatre of the
Ridiculous where he learned to love camp and he met many of the more popular
drag queens in Andy Warhol’s group. Later his band, the New York Dolls dressed
in thrift store clothes which gave them the look of female prostitutes. Johansen
speculated that people really loathed the Dolls because they created sexual
tension, tore down the walls between gay and straight culture, and made people
question their own sexuality.
Personality Crisis combines archival footage of the classic band, as well as
many interview segments and concert footage of Johansen performing under his own
name as well as his other persona, Buster Poindexter under which had his biggest
hit, Hot Hot Hot.”. Ironically, Johansen said he has come to hate the song (he
calls it “the bane of his existence”) which has been played at countless
weddings and bar mitzvahs. During the latter part of his career, he traded his
drag attire for evening wear and dapper suits.
The documentary puts the spotlight on Johansen’s 70th birthday in January 2020,
when he did a show at Café Carlyle, an upper East Manhattan place that only
holds only about one hundred people. The intimate show was packed with many of
Johansen’s closest friends, associates and fellow musicians (Debbie Harry can be
viewed in the front). Some of this recent concert footage is undeniably
exciting, but I felt like there was too much of it in the movie.
I preferred the magnificent clips of him performing with the Dolls and the ones
from his early solo career. Seeing the band’s early 2000s reunion at the Double
Door (even though three of the members had died of drug related deaths by then)
was still one of my best concert memories. Every cool bohemian person in the
world of a certain age seemed to be there that night.
At one point in the film, David Johansen admits in amusement how he was on the
same show about one hit wonders twice under his proper name, David Johansen for
his Animals medley then again Buster Point Dexter for his mock Cuban song, Hot
Hot Hot. He wonders aloud in amusement how someone can be a one hit wonder
The Edge, the guitarist from U2 talks in the film about how much the Dolls
influenced him. At first, he ignored the band at first because he thought that
because of how they dressed that they must play girls’ music. But he was
surprised that when he played his first guitar riff, it was a Dolls riff.
After the Dolls broke up Johansen often performed alone, opening for much more
popular performers like the Rolling Stones and Pat Benatar. He was particularly
humiliated supporting Benatar, and he said her fans looked upon him as if he
were an insect. I think it is unjust that she recently got in the Rock Hall of
Fame, but the far more significant New York Dolls keep getting rejected (they
have been nominated three times.)
In one of the most interesting segments, we find out how and why there was a New
York Dolls reunion. It turns out that the lead singer of The Smiths, Morrissey,
was a huge Smiths fan and as a young man.
He was head of the New York Dolls fan club. He called up Johansen and had heard
that he was a huge fan of opera singer, Maria Callas. He promised Johansen that
if he would reunite the Dolls, they would play the Royal Festival Hotel where
Callas performed in her concert film. Johansen said that “I combed every opium
den in China town and pulled the band together. We were fantastic.”
Johansen is a naturally engaging interview subject, and the film has many great
revelatory moments. But it is inconsistent and overlong. The film overstays its
welcome and at least 20 minutes should have been cut.
But the Personality Crisis: One Night Stand is worthwhile as a whole. It will
definitely be rewarding for Johansen fans and after seeing it even viewers who
have never listened to his work may gain an appreciation for him and his music.