Scorsese waltzes with David Johansen in ‘Personality Crisis’


NEW YORK (AP) – Martin Scorsese was knee-deep in preparation for “Killers of the Flower Moon” when Mara Hennessey reached out to invite him to see David Johansen. The former frontman for the trailblazing 1970s proto-punk band the New York Dolls – and Hennessey’s husband – was performing a new show at the Café Carlyle.

Scorsese, a longtime fan of Johansen (he had once played the Dolls to rile up his actors for a fight scene), went eagerly with a handful of others, including his frequent documentary collaborator David Tedeschi. There, they saw Johansen perform a lounge act of grit and grace.

Here was a downtown fixture relocated to one of uptown’s swankiest rooms. As his pompadoured alter ego, Buster Poindexter, Johansen was performing stripped-down versions of his own songs and Dolls hits, with plenty of reflective, comic interludes. Scorsese, smitten by Johansen’s performance, immediately resolved to shoot it – the still ringing echo of a vanished New York.

“It was just a natural feel: We have to do this,” Scorsese explained in an interview. “We have to capture it before it goes.”

“Personality Crisis: One Night Only,” which debuts Friday on Showtime, is the result, mixing footage Scorsese and co-director David Tedeschi shot over two nights at the Carlyle in January 2020 with flashbacks through Johansen’s wildly varied career and intimate interviews taped during the pandemic by Johansen and Hennessey’s daughter, Leah.

Like Scorsese’s recent Netflix series “Pretend It’s a City” with Fran Lebowitz, it’s also a portrait of a still clarion, still vibrant New York voice in a city that now hardly resembles the one they were all forged in.

“The environment that he came out of in the ’70s, in a way, I’m still there,” says Scorsese, whose third feature film, “Mean Streets,” debuted the same year as the Dolls’ first album. “It has to do with New York because we live in New York. I’m not doing L.A. I’m not doing Chicago. I live in New York. And this is a part of where I came from. It turns out that it’s changed, it’s finished, it’s gone, it’s going somewhere else.”

Time is much on the mind of Scorsese, 80, who in a month will debut at Cannes “Killers of the Flower Moon,” his sprawling adaptation of David Grann’s bestseller about a series of murders of members of the Osage tribe in 1920s Oklahoma. The scope of the Apple release – with a budget of $200 million and a reported runtime of nearly four hours – makes it, like “The Irishman,” one of Scorsese’s biggest undertakings

“Personality Crisis,” sandwiched between two monumental masterworks, a stirringly intimate contrast.

“I was surprised by how much I liked it,” says Johansen. “I hardly cringed.”

The Staten Island-born Johansen, now 73, was a pivotal figure of ’70s East Village New York and the New York Dolls presaged the punk movement. Since then, he’s reinvented himself as the lounge-singing Buster Poindexter, who had the 1980s hit “Hot Hot Hot” (a song that Johansen now more or less disowns). He’s acted, too. Many will remember Johansen as the taxi-driving ghost of Christmas past in “Scrooged.”

Part of the joy of “Personality Crisis” is that it takes Johansen – so often associated with particular eras of rock – out of those contexts. Here, he’s simply a gravel-voiced lounge lizard supreme – a rock ‘n’ roll survivor with the anecdotes to go with it.

“It’s not a rock doc,” says Hennessey. “To me, it’s a portrait of an artist.”

Almost since the beginning, Scorsese has toggled between narrative features and documentaries, though he and Tedeschi don’t love the term “documentary.” (“We’d rather have fun,” says Tedeschi.) Each are simply films, Scorsese says, with different rhythms, choreographies and grammar. And they inform each other, a back-and-forth alchemy that began with 1974’s “Italian American,” a dialogue with his parents released in between “Mean Streets” and “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.”

“These films that David and I do free me to think differently about the narrative films I’m making. The narrative films I’m making are becoming more like novels. These are not quite,” says Scorsese. “Sometimes you get locked in by what’s around you and the way things are supposed to be done. ‘Italian American,’ I just hold the camera on my mother and my father speaking and it was interesting. It changed everything for me.”

“Personality Crisis” likewise influenced “Killers of the Flower Moon.” Several songs Scorsese heard while listening to Johansen’s wide-ranging satellite radio show “Mansion of Fun” made it into the movie, including Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues.” Charlie Musselwhite plays harmonica alongside Johansen in “Personality Crisis”; he also, by coincidence, is an actor in “Killers of the Flower Moon.”

“They just seem to come together,” says Scorsese of his nonfiction and fiction films.


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