Personality Crisis: One Night Only 2023 Movie Review
Over the course of his legendary music career, David Johansen has enjoyed more transformations than your typical rock star. He’s been the frontman of the seminal proto-punk/glam rock band New York Dolls since 1971. Between breakups, he’s toured under his own name, traversing the US nine or so times by his count. In the ’80s, he unveiled a pompadoured persona named Buster Poindexter and hit it MTV-big with “Hot Hot Hot” — a song he now calls “the bane of my existence.” But throughout all these evolutions, Johansen has remained a master raconteur, bursting with tales of New York City’s hottest clubs and skeeziest bars from a variety of scuzzy but sublime eras.
In Personality Crisis: One Night Only, Johansen’s identities collide, offering a fascinating blend of concert doc and hangout movie. And who wouldn’t want to spend some time kicking back with one of the coolest men in rock history?
On the surface, the film is a concert documentary chronicling David Johansen’s cabaret performance at New York City’s Café Carlyle in January of 2020, two months before COVID-19 would shutter clubs across the city (and beyond). In this special event, Johansen played with his personas by singing songs from his New York Dolls days in the guise of the bombastic Buster Poindexter. However, this is not the cartoonish lounge lizard you might remember from the ’80s.
Songs like “Frenchette (Let’s Just Dance),” “Plenty of Music,” and the titular “Personality Crisis” are re-imagined with a reflective vibe, infused with jazz and blues inspirations. Like when Johnny Cash covered Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt,” there’s a gripping maturity that comes with age and a voice that’s weary but not worn out. But Johansen, who notes his varied personas have made him a “one-hit wonder twice,” is not singing with loss or bitterness in his voice, though he has cause for both.
Between songs, co-directors Martin Scorsese and David Tedeschi (who also edited the film) weave archival footage of interviews of Johansen from all across his career. As a young punk, he is scrawny, staring at the world through eyeliner and rebellious shag of long hair. As a more established musician, he muses on Late Night with Conan O’Brien about how brown ale barfing made the Dolls an instant hit in the UK.
As a seventy-something icon, he lounges in an urban backyard, a cozy kitchen nook, and a director’s chair as he contemplates photo albums or the questions posed by his stepdaughter, filmmaker Leah Hennessey. On stage, he spins whimsical yet wistful anecdotes about famous friends — Warhol superstar Candy Darling, Dolls drummer Billy Murcia, Chicago Seven activist Abbie Hoffman — many of whom were lost to drugs or the AIDS epidemic. Yet there’s little agony in his offerings.
Johansen, who has seen fame and failure, pleasure and pain, says simply, “We can’t rid the world of sorrow. But we can choose to live in joy.” Here is where Personality Crisis: One Night Only lives: in a resilient, reflective joy.
Though Johansen has toured the US and the world with his music, this special concert was for his hometown crowd. In attendance are his family (wife Mara Hennessey) and long-time friends (subversive performance artist and writer Penny Arcade). For them and those who were lucky enough to be in that room, he tells stories of the Theater of the Ridiculous, the impulsive origins of the Dolls, and the impetuous youth that defined New York’s art scene. He recounts a prank that filled the opulent Lincoln Square fountain with laundry detergent, turning classy patrons into fools slipping in soap. And he shares insights into legends lost but not forgotten, recalling how Candy Darling once remarked proudly, “I’ve done a lot of low things in my life, but I’ve never been no waitress.”
Between these stories and a wealth of photographs from the ’70s and ’80s, Personality Crisis: One Night Only invites home audiences into the thrall of walking NYC’s streets. Some burst with art and music, others were sketchy yet no less influential. Johansen regards them all with a grateful wonder and smirking wit. Scorsese and Tedeschi bolster his stories with a distinctly New York attitude that will be familiar to anyone who saw the pair’s previous collaboration, the Fran Lebowitz-centric documentary series Pretend It’s a City.
What this means is that Johansen, Scorsese, and Tedeschi don’t glorify a New York that never really was. They remember the trash, the drugs, and the stench. But looking back, it all feels essential to the tapestry of that time. A scrubby time when dressing in so-called “women’s clothes” could get you arrested — as Johansen was. Where pushing on societal norms meant gender-bending and planting a tree in the middle of St. Mark’s Place. Where death would crash the party, but the show would go on.
Incredibly, while Johansen isn’t shy about recognizing the impact he’s had on rock music — he notes The Ramones were inspired by them and describes Morrissey as “a gloomy Gertie” and “the teen president of the New York Dolls fan club in London” — he’s not boastful either. That smile that stretches wider than the Brooklyn Bridge is as radiant as the Chrysler Building on a clear day. He’s just cool and content, not because of great wealth or great fame, but because he’s lived a life and made a name that’s truly his. Here, he owns that — the good, the bad, and the Buster Poindexter.
Despite the title, Personality Crisis: One Night Only is not a film about a man at war with himself. It’s a movie about a person at peace with where they’ve been, where they are, and still excited about where they might go next. Through its immersion and intimacy, this incredible concert doc invites us on this journey, giving us a night with David Johansen. But it’s more than a night of riveting storytelling. It’s the kind of night in a dark, smoky lounge that carries the whiff of spilled whiskey, where stories are told that stick with you, even if the details blur. These are the stitches that hold together our souls, battered and bruised but still yearning for music, joy, and bliss.