A month from now, Martin Scorsese will turn eighty, and his age has always given him a unique perspective on the rock ‘n’ roll world. Beginning with “Mean Streets,” in which the film’s soundtrack (mainly rock and soul nuggets from the early-to-mid-’60s) is a decade behind the film’s era (the early-to-mid-’70s), he has been fascinated with rock and its aging.
Scorsese’s first rock documentary, “The Last Waltz,” was an end-of-an-era elegy for the Band and the counterculture mystique the Band embodied, despite the fact that Scorsese, at the time he shot it, was just 34 and Robbie Robertson was 33.
(They were already thinking as if they were middle-aged) “Shine a Light” was about the hip-shake snazziness of the Rolling Stones’ six-decade longevity, and “Public Speaking,” though not a rock doc, treated Fran Lebowitz as a rock star of raconteurs — along with one more subject, like the Band or the Stones, who matched Scorsese’s mythologizing perspective on aging-yet-ageless boomer mavericks.
Scorsese’s documentary “Personality Crisis: One Night Only” about David Johansen, the New York Doll-turned-Buster Poindexter-turned-timeless icon of guttersnipe hipsterdom, feels timely.
Johansen, who was born in 1950 and is now 72 years old, fits nicely with Scorsese’s underlying rock ‘n’ roll fascination, which is to see former bad-boy rebels as they age and, in a little stiffer manner, continue to harness the supercharged energy of their youth.
Scorsese intentionally drew parallels between these artists and his own identity as the rock ‘n’ rollies of cinema directors, still cracking the whip in his golden years.
In “Personality Crisis,” David Johansen might be said to have three personas. He is the flamboyantly trashy, lip-jutting, cross-dressing, East Village punk-harlot lead vocalist of the Dolls (formed in 1971), a more ramshackle American Mick Jagger.
Johansen began appearing as Buster Poindexter in 1987, just in time for the Reagan era’s retro irony explosion. And then there’s Johansen, the straight-shooter from Staten Island who became a self-taught sophisticate and is full of sardonic insights about the bohemian milieu he has spent the past 50 years navigating.
The majority of the film is comprised of a performance given by Johansen as Buster Poindexter in January 2020, shortly prior to the epidemic. Standing onstage at the Café Carlyle in New York City, surrounded by the club’s posh painted murals of café society (and former downtown celebrities like Debbie Harry and Penny Arcade, who are in the audience), Johansen, looking like a very slovenly Peter Dinklage, is now, you could argue, closer to the entertainer Buster always was at heart: a tattered nightclub “legend.”
The pompadour is just as high, but it now feeds into longish coiffed hair, and he sports a John Waters mustache with a goatee, rose-tinted horn-rimmed glasses, a dark jacket with spangled flecks, and a paisley handkerchief, not to mention that voice, which is somewhere between a croon and a gangster’s croak.
This is Johansen going Full Hipster, although you could claim that this is his fourth identity in the film. In the 1980s and 1990s, Buster was a fabricated showbiz dandy who sang old standards with a gravelly voice. But in “Personality Crisis,” Buster sings only David Johansen songs with a sorrowful rasp, and his lounge-lizard character is now a merging — we’re watching Johansen play Buster as he channels Johansen, nearly sloshing between the two.
Scorsese will linger on one of Johansen’s humorous and illuminating reminiscences. The singer relates the anxiety of meeting Arthur “Killer” Kane when he knocked on the door of Johansen’s fifth-floor walk-up on the Hell’s Angels block, as well as how the novelty hit “Hot Hot Hot” became “the torment of my existence” (though I doubt it’s the bane of his financial account).
And he recounts a terrific, expansive story about how he bonded with Milo Forman and almost launched a film career by earning one of the lead roles in the 1979 film adaptation of “Hair” — until one of the show’s composers, Galt McDermot, destroyed it all when he determined that Johansen couldn’t sing.
The patter will be followed by a number, and some of them are fantastic, such as “Melody,” the 1979 track that has always been a standout Johansen song (it’s a Motown imitation that seems like a real Motown record), which the singer transforms into a mournful ballad here.
Then the movie will jump back to Johansen’s explosive heyday: clips of the Dolls, in all their ruffian majesty, performing on rock TV shows or at Max’s Kansas City, or Johansen in the mid-’90s telling Conan O’Brien what has to be the grossest anecdote about the formation of punk ever told, or a good story about going off to make a record at Todd Rundgren’s
In the late 1980s, my impression of Buster Poindexter was that a little of him went a long way. I still believe this. Scorsese, who co-directed the documentary with David Tedeschi (the film’s editor), keeps cutting back and forth between whole Buster songs and clips from the past, but the Buster nightclub atmosphere slows the picture down after a while.
“Personality Crisis” is an unnecessary two hours long. The film indulges Scorsese’s obsessive obsession with Buster Poindexter in an intriguing manner, but the story of Johansen in the 1970s and 1980s should have been prolonged. Johnny Thunders’ downward spiral with drugs may be old news, but the film still seems to give it short shrift.
Yet David Johansen is so endearing as a character who seems to have conquered every adversity that you are grateful to fall into his narratives of wised-up nostalgia, not to mention his life-is-a-cabaret-of-fantasy-perseverance spirit.