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‘Personality Crisis’ is an exciting and intuitive documentary


Something you’ll hear us talk about a lot in public radio is how exciting it is to be absorbed by a story about something we didn’t even know we were interested in. And even more than that, about something we were pretty sure we weren’t interested in. This is quite a bit harder with movies, largely because we have a lot more control over what we’re taking in: if I don’t think I’m interested, I’m probably not going to intentionally watch it.

It's not that I’m not interested in the musician David Johansen, I definitely understand his importance as a member of the New York Dolls and their role in initiating the punk scene in the early 1970s, and of course I know his alter ego Buster Poindexter and the song “Hot Hot Hot.” It’s just that I’m pretty positive I wouldn’t have gone out of my way to watch a documentary about Johansen, even one directed by Martin Scorsese, and even considering Scorsese has been making some of the more interesting music documentaries I’ve seen over the past 15 years or so.

But as you’re expecting by now, I was delightfully surprised by Scorsese’s new movie about Johansen, called Personality Crisis: One Night Only. It’s part concert film, featuring what Johansen describes as “Buster Poindexter singing the songs of David Johansen,” and it’s partly made up of archival footage from throughout the musician’s career, along with some interviews Johansen did with his daughter. Scorsese and his co-director David Tedeschi don’t get overly complicated with how they shoot the concert, with Johansen performing in a small room in front of what seems to be mostly friends and family—the filmmakers stay out of the way, mostly cutting between just a couple of cameras, occasionally lingering just a little on Johansen’s hand, or a friend’s smile. And Johansen is quite obviously a fantastic entertainer, his charisma is off-the-charts, but he feels warm and approachable, and he’s terribly funny—I laughed out loud when he somewhat lovingly described the famously dour singer Morrissey as “kind of a gloomy Gertie.”

The rest of the film gives us a purposely incomplete picture of Johansen as a person, less of a chronological description of his life and more hopping in and out of his experiences, especially early on with the Dolls. But we do begin to see Johansen as an engaging, thoughtful, and curious man, even if that’s mostly what he wants us to see. The way it’s all put together is exciting to watch, and remarkably intuitive—at one point, for no particular reason, I thought, “I wonder what he looked like as a young child,” and within a few seconds, the film showed me a photo of Johansen as a boy. And the movie creates a bridge between the different eras of Johansen’s career, sometimes seamlessly cutting from him performing a song as a young man to him performing the same song years later.

David Johansen is an enormously important figure for a number of reasons, but whether you know all about his musical and cultural contributions or you’re only just now hearing his name for the first time, this film is immensely entertaining. Even if you don’t think you’re interested, trust me, you are.

Personality Crisis: One Night Only debuts on Showtime April 14th.

Fletcher Powell has worked at KMUW since 2009 as a producer, reporter, and host. He's been the host of All Things Considered since 2012 and KMUW's movie critic since 2016. Fletcher is a member of the Critics Choice Association.