Created by none other than Martin Scorsese and David Tedeschi, “Personality Crisis: One Night Only” is a documentary about the famous New York personality David Johansen. The documentary follows the charismatic life of Johansen, who was a singer-songwriter for The New York Dolls; the whole venture is created by mixing various interviews and two nights shot on the luminous sets created in Cafe Carlyle in January 2020.
The documentary begins with a scene in Cafe Carlyle in 2020, where Buster Poindexter (David Johansen) is called to the stage. He begins the night with “Funky but Chic.” The scene shifts to a video clip where we see Conan O’Brien interviewing David Johansen, and he mentions a hilarious story of how The New York Dolls helped start the punk movement. The scene again shifts to Cafe Carlyle, where David Johansen is performing “Melody.” We again see a clip of The New York Dolls performing “Stranded in the Jungle” at Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert. After that, members of The New York Dolls are telling their interviewer that people from every community can visit their show and connect with them, and also about the release of their track “Trash” which they start to perform. Morrissey, the singer, and songwriter, then tells how he was a fan of The New York Dolls for their wit and intelligence, and went to see them live in 1972, but they did not perform as their drummer Billy had died of an overdose. The band again appeared in The Old Grey Whistle Test in 1973, and Morrissey highlights how the band was connected and revolted over transgender and drug issues. The scene shifts to David in recent times, where he says how society was compartmentalized in the 1970s, and he wanted to bring down all the walls that separated everyone. Back at the Cafe Carlyle again, David soothes the audience with his words and starts to play “Plenty of Music.”
We then see David performing “Poor Boy Blues” with The Harry Smiths. A clip from an interview then tells us that David has met with Harry Smith a few times, who was a polymath and whose record collection was extremely pivotal in the boom of rock and roll and American folk music. David’s childhood is shown here a bit, and we get to know he belonged to a family that loved music and that his father could sing operas. David formed his first band at the age of 14 and used to go to competitions and perform at schools. The scene shifts to Cafe Carlyle, where David says it is his birthday today and that he is a sentimental fool, and how they went to visit Charlotte Moorman at the New York Avant-Garde Festival. Then he tells how he got a job, making jewelry out of cans for the rising pop culture, and got involved in the theater with the help of his friend, where he used to perform various roles. The band starts playing “Temptation to Exist,” and the song ends with a whistling tone where David is assisted by the drummer, Ray Grappone, whom David introduces to the audience along with Thomas, a Cafe Carlyle member who brings a drink to David.
David lauds how classical a place this cafe was and tells the audience about Morrissey, who was the president of The New York Dolls Fan Club in England. Morrissey offers the proposition that David could perform at the Royal Festival Hall, but he has to get The New York Dolls together. David mockingly says he did get the band together by combing all the “opium dens in Chinatown” and even played at various music festivals all over the world after that, and the band in Cafe Carlyle starts playing “Better Than You”. Soon David tells the band to stop the song as it is not going well, and we see a clip from the 2004 Meltdown Festival where The New York Dolls are playing “Jet Boy”. David then tells of the time when he got arrested in Memphis, Tennessee, for wearing women’s clothes and how a show in Long Island was a mess due to a lot of sexual tension among the crowd. David highlights that the members of the band had a similar ideology of how to become “a great rockstar,” and the scene shifts to the playing of “Vietnamese Baby.” The scene again shifts to Cafe Carlyle, where David tells how they went to Todd Rundgren’s home, which was like a “Cambodian drug lord’s pagoda” in Hawaii, and how the creation of “Making Rain” took place, which he and the cafe band start to play. He then introduces Keith Cotton, who was the pianist in the cafe. David then tells the audience about a cafe by the name of Max in Kansas City, where he used to hang out when he was 18, and of the sweet memories he made there. He shares about a particularly funny incident where, along with him, there was Penny Arcade, who is present in Cafe Carlyle, Ingrid Superstar, and Bill Vehr. Then we come across an interview clip where we learn a bit about the Ridiculous Theatre Company, and how David got mixed up in political activities during the 1970s. He tells the interviewer that “intelligent ridiculousness” has always appealed to him.
We then see clippings of John Cage performing 4’33’’, Charlotte Moorman talking about music, images of Mercer Street, and the return of Maria Callas. We are back in Cafe Carlyle, and David is telling the audience about his meeting with Arthur Kane and Billy Murcia. They went to Johnny Thunders’s apartment, which was quite posh, and the cafe band starts playing “Lonely Planet Boy.” We also learn then how Thunders was found dead due to his drug abuse habit. David then tells about the time she met Mara, his wife, and how he will always love her, and he starts playing “Dancing on the Lip of a Volcano.” Then we again see a flashback event where David is performing Smokestack Lightning with Hubert Sumlin and Charlie Musselwhite. An interview clipping is seen where we see different art in the lyric book of David, which he says is like a devotional thing, the whole musical journey. Then we see interview clippings about David’s break out from The New York Dolls and the birth of Buster Poindexter. David started performing in his neighborhood club by the name of Tramps and the Poindexter Act started to gain popularity. The unexpected nature of the act, where David could sing any song or put on any joke, made the show very popular among the audience. Back at the Cafe Carlyle, we see David performing “Totalitarian State.”
An interviewer asks David why they did not make a huge dime or demand high wages. David says that they were a “band’s band” and influenced a lot of other folks to start a band, and he gives the example of “The Ramones.” We also see clippings where David is working on the radio and talking about opera. The scene again shifts to Cafe Carlyle, and by giving an “Eddie Murphy” smile, David starts performing the “Wandering Spirit Prayer.” Again, a flashback occurs where we see Buster Poindexter performing “Hot Hot Hot” at the Waldorf Astoria, and later David says to his interviewer how “ubiquitous” that song was and how it was played everywhere from weddings to bar mitzvahs. David talks about his personal life for a bit, and at this time, it is quite good, though he admits that he had some moments of crises along the way. He tells how he had survived some terrible times like the Vietnam War, the AIDS epidemic, and very recently COVID, in which he lost many loved ones. In Cafe Carlye, David talks about his shows with the David Johansen band, and we see a clip from the past playing “Frenchette” which merges with the present time as David sings the same song in the cafe too.
David tells the audience in Cafe Carlye, that he once dreamed of becoming an actor and went for an audition. Though he passed in acting and dancing, he was disqualified as a singer, upon hearing which the crowd bursts out in laughter and applauds. David, along with the cafe band, starts playing “Maimed Happiness.” David tells the interviewer that the name of the song, “Maimed Happiness,” was inspired by a line from William James’s book. We see David talking to his many friends in the cafe and reflecting on the life he had, and suddenly the scene shifts to David playing “Personality Crisis” in different parts of his life. The documentary ends with David playing “Heart of Gold.”
What Is The Takeaway From The Documentary?
Storytelling at its finest, Martin Scorsese and David Tedeschi are able to aptly bring out the illustrious life of David Johansen, whose performances as Buster Poindexter and as himself in Cafe Carlyle show the artist’s evergreen nature and contribution to society.