When David Johansen’s alter ego, Buster Poindexter, swings into “Funky but Chic” early in “Personality Crisis: One Night Only” — a documentary co-directed by Martin Scorsese and David Tedeschi — a viewer should consider herself primed for a droll and cheeky evening. A first-rate raconteur, Johansen — wearing a pompadour, sunglasses and bespoke suit — brings the funk. The storied Café Carlyle delivers the chic. The song was the first single Johansen released after having been the lead singer of the iconic 1970s band the New York Dolls.
In January 2020, Johansen celebrated his 70th birthday with a cabaret show at the Carlyle. And the film treats that happening as a hub as it ventures into a rich visual archive of Johansen’s (and New York City’s) renegade past and his ruminative present. Interviews with the boundlessly inquisitive artist, conducted by his stepdaughter Leah Hennessey, are intercut with the performance and Johansen’s vagabond history, which includes fronting the Harry Smiths, named for the Chelsea Hotel denizen who compiled the “Anthology of American Folk Music” album that put a spell on so many.
The cinematographer Ellen Kuras captures the singer and his terrific ensemble, the Boys in the Band Band, with suave fluidity. Downtown luminaries including Debbie Harry of Blondie are among the assembled.
In clips of the New York Dolls performing “Personality Crisis,” Johansen belts and the late Johnny Thunders’s guitar rattles. In addition to Thunders, the Dolls Sylvain Sylvain, Arthur Kane, Billy Murcia and Jerry Nolan have died. Johansen is mindful of his ghosts — there are many. Yet to quote Sondheim’s battered and triumphal tune, a standard at cabarets like Café Carlyle, Johansen’s still here.
Personality Crisis: One Night Only
Not rated. Running time: 2 hours. Watch on Showtime platforms.
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