A month from now, Martin Scorsese will turn 80, and the fact that he goes back that far has always given him a special angle on the rock ‘n’ roll world. From the start, he has been about looking at rock and watching it age — first in “Mean Streets,” where part of the hypnotic rapture of the film’s soundtrack (mostly rock and soul nuggets from the early-to-mid-’60s) is that it’s a decade behind the film’s era (the early ’70s). “The Last Waltz,” Scorsese’s first rock doc, was an end-of-an-epoch elegy for the Band and the counterculture mystique the Band incarnated — though Scorsese, when he shot it, was just 34, and Robbie Robertson was 33. (They were already thinking like young old men.) “Shine a Light” was about the hip-shake snakiness of the Rolling Stones’ sixtysomething longevity, and “Public Speaking,” while not a rock doc, treated Fran Lebowitz as a rock star of raconteurs — as well as one more subject, like the Band or the Stones, who synced up with Scorsese’s mythologizing vantage on aging-yet-ageless boomer mavericks.
On that score, the time feels right for “Personality Crisis: One Night Only,” a Scorsese documentary about David Johansen, the New York Doll turned Buster Poindexter turned timeless icon of guttersnipe hipsterdom. Johansen, born in 1950, is a mere spring chicken of 72, but he meshes perfectly with Scorsese’s underlying rock ‘n’ roll obsession, which is to gaze at former bad-boy rebels as they get older and, in a slightly more stiff-jointed way, continue to channel the electrified spirit of their youth. Any parallel between these artists and Scorsese’s own identity as the rock ‘n’ rolliest of film auteurs, still cracking the whip in his golden years, is strictly intentional.
In “Personality Crisis,” you could say that David Johansen has three identities. He’s the flamboyantly trashy, lip-jutting, cross-dressing East Village punk-harlot lead singer of the Dolls (who came together in 1971), an American Mick Jagger with a more ramshackle edge. He’s Buster Poindexter, the pompadoured and tuxedoed cabaret-nightclub alter ego with the Cheshire-cat grin who Johansen began appearing as in 1987, just in time for the ironic retro boom of the Reagan era. And then there’s the offstage Johansen — the straight-shooter from Staten Island who grew up into a self-taught sophisticate, full of wry observations about the bohemian culture he has spent 50 years weaving in and out of.
Half the movie consists of a performance that Johansen gave as Buster Poindexter in January 2020, just before the pandemic. Standing onstage at the Café Carlyle in New York City, surrounded by the club’s posh painted murals of café society (and by former downtown celebs like Debbie Harry and Penny Arcade, who are in the audience), Johansen, looking like a very louche Peter Dinklage, is now, you could argue, closer to the entertainer Buster always was at heart — a been-around-the-block tatty nightclub “legend.” The pompadour stands just as high, but now it feeds into longish coiffed hair, and he sports a John Waters mustache with a goatee, rose-tinted horn-rims, and a dark jacket with spangled flecks and a paisley handkerchief, not to mention that voice, which is halfway between a croon and a gangster’s croak.
This is Johansen going Full Hipster — though you could say that in the movie, it’s actually his fourth identity. The Buster of the ’80s and ’90s was a concocted showbiz dandy who performed old standards in a voice of put-on gravel. But in “Personality Crisis,” Buster performs nothing but David Johansen songs, belting them out in a plaintive rasp, and his lounge-lizard persona is now a blending — we’re watching Johansen play Buster as he channels Johansen, almost sloshing back and forth between the two.
Scorsese will linger on one of Johansen’s pattery reminiscences, which are funny and revealing. The singer describes the intimidation of meeting Arthur “Killer” Kane when he knocked on the door of Johansen’s fifth-floor walk-up on the Hell’s Angels block, and how the novelty hit “Hot Hot Hot” became “the bane of my existence” (though I suspect it’s not the bane of his bank account). And he tells a great sprawling tale about how he bonded with Miloš Forman and almost launched a movie career by landing one of the lead roles in the 1980 big-screen version of “Hair” — until Galt McDermot, one of the show’s composers, squashed it all when he decided that Johansen couldn’t sing. The patter will be followed by a number, and some of them are terrific, like “Melody,” the 1979 track that was always a standout Johansen song (it’s a Motown knockoff that feels like it could be an actual Motown single), which the singer here slows to a melancholy ballad.
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 early ’80s telling Conan O’Brien what has to be the grossest anecdote about the formation of punk ever heard, or a good story about going off to make a record at Todd Rundgren’s house (“It looked like a Cambodian drug lord’s pagoda”), or a section devoted to Johansen’s love for the avant-garde musician Harry Smith or to his youthful days hanging out with the Ridiculous Theatrical Company (it was Charles Ludlum who showed up one day and said he was having a “personality crisis”), or a look at how Morrissey got his start as the teenage president of the Dolls’ British fan club.
When I would see Buster Poindexter in the late ’80s, my feeling was that a little of him went a long way. I still feel that way. Scorsese, who co-directed the documentary with David Tadeschi (the film’s editor), keeps cutting back and forth between complete Buster numbers and clips from the past, but after a while the Buster nightclub mood feels like it’s slowing the movie down. “Personality Crisis” is two hours long and didn’t need to be. The film engagingly indulges Scorsese’s fan fixation on Buster Poindexter, yet the story of Johansen in the ’70s and ’80s could have been expanded. The downward drug spiral of Johnny Thunders may be ancient news, but it still feels like the film is giving it short shrift. Yet David Johansen is so winning, as a personality who seems to have transcended every crisis, that you watch this movie grateful to sink into his anecdotes of wised-up nostalgia, not to mention his spirit of life-is-a-make-believe-cabaret endurance.