Martin Scorsese Brings Punk Sophistication to David Johansen Documentary

Culture,Movies
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Personality Crisis: One Night Only, the Showtime documentary on David Johansen which was co-directed by Martin Scorsese and David Tedeschi, made its world premiere at The New York Film Festival, the same venue Scorsese’s Mean Streets debuted in 1973. That was the same year The New York Dolls’ first album came out. 

During the Q&A which followed the screening, Scorsese said he would play the Dolls’ music to the actors before shooting scenes in Mean Streets. “I heard this song, ‘Personality Crisis,’ the rhythm and blues roots, the energy of it, the sense of humor, particularly when he sings ‘yeah, yeah, yeah’ and the band answers ‘no, no, no,’ it’s no game, we’re in,” Scorsese remembered from the panel. “I had played it for the guys, and I showed them the album cover and they said ‘what is this?’ It generated the energy of the whole movie.”

The singer for the New York Dolls, which also consisted of guitarist Johnny Thunders, bassist Arthur Kane, guitarist and pianist Sylvain Sylvain, and drummer Jerry Nolan, had his own connection with the film. It was a typical New York moment.

“Sylvain and myself were wandering around one summer night,” Johansen told the festival audience. “We were walking past, I can’t remember the name of the cinema, but it was on Fifth Avenue and 13th St., a little artsy kind of theater, clean though. It was hot and we wanted to get a little air conditioning, and we went in there. Mean Streets was playing, which we hadn’t even heard of. At first, I might have smoked a joint before I went in, I really thought it was a documentary. Until they started going at it. It was a beautiful film. We’ve been in each other’s orbits since then.”

Personality Crisis: One Night Only, possibly inadvertently, presents a parallel between the two, very distinctly New York City artists. Scorsese was a punk filmmaker when he independently put Mean Streets together, itself a filmed piece of violent street theater capturing a fringe community, and is now deeply entrenched in the motion picture establishment. Johansen’s New York Dolls was the most visible underground band of their time, and now he’s an urban musical institution. The documentary’s true star is Buster Poindexter, the more sophisticatedly altered ego of Johansen, an egoless performer with “the best pompadour in the business.” All three – Scorsese, Johansen, and Poindexter, have come a long way.

Personality Crisis: One Night Only is not a documentary with concert footage. It is a concert film interspersed with archival footage, and more current interviews. The show took place on Johansen’s 70th birthday on January 9, 2020, and all his friends, including Debbie Harry, director Ari Aster, and cult performer Penny Arcade, were there to help celebrate. The performance was held at the glamorous jazz restaurant Café Carlyle at the Rosewood Hotel, which housed American Royalty like Jacqueline Kennedy, now Johansen’s home away from home. His annual residency opened right before COVID-19 hit, shutting down all live entertainment. The documentary takes a deep healing breath, and dives in.

With his pencil-thin beard, John Waters-style mustache, ostentatious black suit and night-of-the-following-day sunglasses, Johansen looks more like a character in Scorsese’s After Hours than a habitue of the glitzy Café Carlyle. His first residency was so tasty, he said yes to seconds without thinking. For his return, the funky godfather of chic punked out. Johansen only created the Buster Poindexter persona because he grew tired of seeing the world, and this was “an act that could only play in New York,” the documentary notes during a flashback to a grueling tour. Onstage at the Café Carlyle, he admits “I was in no mood for learning 20 new songs.” So, he replaces himself with, well, himself.

For the second residency, the singer-songwriter put together an evening for Buster Poindexter: “That’s me,” he explains to the audience who may not know the mischievous ‘80s lounge lizard character who combined swing, blues, and rock to obscure the preconceiving image of The New York Dolls, doing songs written or co-written by David Johansen. “That’s me,” he tells the crowd, already in on the joke, and going with it. In any incarnation, Johansen can get you to play along. “They don’t call it working music,” he explains in the film. “They call it playing music.”

This sets the tone. Buster Poindexter plays for and with Johansen’s audience, while the cameras play with him. Strategically placed lenses capture the opulence of Café Carlyle, filling it with the artful lighting and ambiance it deserves. It is a set, as detailed as any other film set, from gothic horror to adventure-romance, and the old punk on stage commands it.

Whether the camera stays close to him, or frames highlights of the performances of his four-man combo, the Boys in the Band Band (Brian Koonin on guitar, Keith Cotton on piano, Richard Hammond on bass, and Ray Grappone on drums), we feel the inviting presence. A natural world-class raconteur, Johansen tells a documentary interviewer he never plans banter, because it would get in the way with his “boîte” with the audience. Cinematographer Ellen Kuras captures a deep intimacy between the players, the headliner, and the audience. It feels as close as attending this concert can without being there. This reflects back on the crew behind the camera, who obviously love this show.

The setlist is wonderful, including “Lonely Planet Boy,” “Frenchette,” “Frankenstein,” “Totalitarian State,” and opening with a nighthawks-at-the-bar rendition of “Funky but Chic.” Most importantly, all the songs are allowed to play out in full, whether from the band on stage, or in an archival clip. The editing team’s precise match-cuts successfully shortcut whole histories, occasionally through several different live renditions, but always allow the song its closure. Except one. Neither the band at the Café Carlyle nor past footage dispense a complete rendition of “Hot Hot Hot.” During an interview, Johansen bemoans how it became “ubiquitous” until it was “the bane of my existence.” Its near-absence is brilliance.

After playing school dances and consistently coming in second in Staten Island battle-of-the-bands contests, Johansen took a very circuitous route to The New York Dolls. He was a true revolutionary in revolutionary times, but it was natural to him. “Gay, straight, vegetarian, whatever,” Johansen says in an interview. “I just wanted to bring those walls down and have a party.”

The New York Dolls only released two studio albums, both must-haves, but changed the direction of music with their live shows. Audiences at the time thought the band was seriously dangerous. They let loose with such a raw and raucous racket, harder hitting than the most bad-ass rock gods, while “looking like male prostitutes,” as Morrissey says in a clip from Greg Whiteley’s 2006 documentary New York Doll.  “He’s kind of a gloomy Gertie,” Poindexter says on stage about the former teenage New York Dolls fan club president. “But he loved him some Dolls.”

Mean Streets and The New York Dolls came from insular congregations, from bathtub-in-the-kitchen apartment gatherings on 3rd Street, which Johansen astutely calls “The Hell’s Angels’ block,” to Scorsese’s Little Italy neighborhood choice between priesthood and crime. Scorsese turned Catholic guilt into a pool cue and bashed people over the head with it. The New York Dolls took the most ridiculous pieces of social resistance, accessorized them with casual drug indulgence and cut-rate sexual challenge, and aimed for the nuts.

The New York Dolls fluidly subverted gender identity in an era when it could get them beaten up.  “It was the lie that tells the truth,” Johansen explains in an interview. “It gets to the point.” Even if the truth was the only affordably-priced items in thrift shops that came anywhere close to rock fashion were women’s clothes, it still got Johansen arrested for “looking like Liza Minnelli” in Memphis in 1972. His mugshot could have been an album cover.

During the documentary, Johansen is asked whether he resents how Kiss and Aerosmith made a lot of money watering down The New York Dolls’ presentation. The very classy Johansen points out how much more important it is The Ramones were encouraged to think if a guy like Johansen could do it, they could get away with it.

A flashback interview shows Johansen recall the exact moment the New York Dolls invented punk music. During a brief tour of England in 1972, they’d been served what amounts to buckets of Newcastle’s finest ale as a welcoming gift. Halfway through the set, original drummer Billy Murcia puked up gallons of it without missing a beat. Some bounced off his floor-tom onto Johansen, who also vomited without even pausing the performance, and the rest of the band followed in group unity. The applause was deafening. By the end of the tour, every band in England was puking onstage. While the story may be tongue-in-cheek, the sad truth was Murcia died from an accidental overdose during the tour.

Johansen spends little time, and less effort, on reminiscing, which makes his stories all the more relatable, especially to adventurous kids who grew up in the city. It was completely possible to get lost in the Chelsea Hotel for weeks at a time. It is liberating to relive Johansen’s most flippant recollections of falling asleep while working the sound at the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, and getting invites to the avant-garde performance and political happenings which simultaneously shaped the late 1960s. Johansen got to take advantage of the freedom of the artists presented at the Mercer Arts Center before it collapsed under the weight of so much creativity, the sexually ambiguous flamboyancy of the regulars at Max’s Kansas City, the catty putdowns of the Andy Warhol crowd, and the free political street art of Fluxus.

“You’re a Communist dupe,” Johansen fondly remembers his mother telling him, chuckling seriously. “Maybe I was.” The telling makes it sound like so much fun, while the footage shows how available it appeared. At any moment, Johansen could get a surprise knock from a Viking with a guitar but no singer, or a neighbor from down the hall who happened to be part of Up Against the Wall Motherfucker, the Dadaist, anarchist, Lower East Side direct action committee which was infamous for its beyond-hippie activist stance.

One of the film’s most surprising uncovered adventures comes from ad hoc political action. In February, 1968, Johansen participated in one of the political theater group’s most original and newsworthy events. During the NYC garbage strike, Up Against the Wall Motherfucker collected all the trash from the Lower East Side, ceremoniously took it uptown via the subway, and dumped it at Lincoln Center on its gala opening night.

In the documentary, Johansen cheerfully remembers an industrial size tub of laundromat detergent dumped into the fountain, and the beauty of the foam all over the fancy evening wear of the bourgeois cultural event attendees. All of these things contribute to the casually controversial hepcat on the stage. 

On the flip side, Johansen is equally enthralling when he details how he passed an acting audition with Milos Forman to star in the film adaptation of Hair, was transformed into a graceful gazelle by dance legend Twyla Tharp, but was told he couldn’t sing by the composer, Galt MacDermot. It is told like a joke, but it reveals a lot about the hard-working performer whose father used to belt out light opera while fixing the roof on the family’s Staten Island home.

Scorsese and Tedeschi previously co-directed The Fifty-Year Argument, but Tedeschi edited most of Scorsese’s music documentaries, such as George Harrison: Living in the Material World, and No Direction Home: Bob Dylan. Scorsese’s feature films are edited by Thelma Schoonmaker, who sets a completely different beat than Tedeschi, who is in tune with the rhythm of character over narrative. The two editors share an unerring sense of timing.

Personality Crisis: One Night Only is stylistically closer to Public Speaking, the full-length documentary profile of Fran Lebowitz, than The Last Waltz, Scorsese’s standard-setting concert documentation film, or the Rolling Stones documentary Shine A Light. The Café Carlyle show gives Johansen and his songs a maturity, never jaded, forever cynical, while allowing Scorsese to focus his microscopic concentration on a slice of live.

Scorsese’s Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story got fancy. It is an engaging work, impossible to stop watching because it is as happily self-indulgent as the tour it documented. Like some of the band’s song renditions at the Carlyle, Scorsese slows things down considerably for Personality Crisis: One Night Only. So much has been happening so quickly, he shows survival is just another day’s work for Johansen, not much to reminisce on, because there is a future going on, once you conquer your spiritual struggle, and just say yes.

Personality Crisis: One Night Only works as an introduction for the uninitiated, while slipping in just enough unearthed footage, genuine class, and hitherto lesser-known nuggets for lifelong devotees. But it works best as an evening with Johansen and his quartet, on a gig they only had to take an elevator to perform. The songs may be tinged with melancholy, but never lose their melody, the memory just repeats. Scorsese, Johansen, and Poindexter dance to it as only New York icons can.

Personality Crisis: One Night Only premieres on Showtime on April 14.

The post Martin Scorsese Brings Punk Sophistication to David Johansen Documentary appeared first on Den of Geek.

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