Scorsese waltzes with David Johansen in ‘Personality Crisis’

Apr 13, 2023, 11:59 AM

This image released by Showtime shows David Johansen in "Personality Crisis: One Night Only," a doc...

This image released by Showtime shows David Johansen in "Personality Crisis: One Night Only," a documentary directed by Martin Scorsese and David Tedeschi, streaming April 14 on Showtime. (Showtime via AP)

(Showtime via AP)

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 one of Scorsese’s biggest undertakings.

“It’s not four hours,” he says. “It’s lengthy. It’s an epic.”

Adding in “The Irishman,” Scorsese’s ambitions seem to be only growing with age. Bigger productions, he says, are what he’s aiming toward now — even if he’s less accustomed to directing the movement of mass groups of people the way Steven Spielberg or Ridley Scott can.

“They just snap their fingers and it happens. But I can’t. Maybe I could,” says Scorsese. “Something else happens. If the character finds himself in a story that takes a longer period of time to tell, then I feel comfortable with that. And I think there’s an audience for that. Or I should say I think there’s still an audience for that.”

Other big projects may loom, Scorsese says.

“If I get there,” he says. “You got to get there.”

All of which makes “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.”

“The Last Waltz,” Scorsese’s seminal film with The Band, he says shaped “Raging Bull.” “The Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story” (2019), Scorsese connects with 2016’s “Silence” — both in their way about the performance of a spiritual act.

“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.

The same could be said for Johansen and Scorsese. They’ve known each other for decades. Johansen remembers seeing “Mean Streets” when it came out, not knowing anything about the director.

“It was so fundamentally good,” he says, shaking his head. Johansen, though, initially wasn’t thrilled about the idea of a documentary.

“People always ask me, ‘Would you be in this documentary? It’s about punk.’ I would just say nope,” Johansen says. “Because when I see myself in that situation, I feel like, ‘Who is this idiot and where did he come from?’”

But making a film with Scorsese — whose long line of rock ‘n’ roll chronicles includes “George Harrison: Living in the Material World” and the Rolling Stones concert film “Shine a Light” — was an easier call.

“I like him for a lot of reasons but one of the reasons I like him is because he, like myself, finds music so inspiring,” says Johansen.

Johansen and Hennessey first thought about turning the Carlyle concert into an off-Broadway show, but Scorsese said it should be filmed.

“Marty said, ‘Ask my wife. I fall asleep in the theater,’” recalls Johansen.

Scorsese and Tedeschi shot his performances unsure of what shape it would take. Over the pandemic, it morphed into a film, and perhaps the clearest and most unfiltered recording of Johansen yet. (A soundtrack is forthcoming.)

“I used to think about my voice like: ‘What’s it gonna sound like? What’s it going to be when I do this song?’ And I’d get myself into a knot about it,” says Johansen. “At some point in my life, I decided: ‘Just sing the f—-ing song. With whatever you got.’ To me, I go on stage and whatever mood I’m in, I just claw my way out of it, essentially.”

Scorsese, too, has been trying to persevere without compromise in a sometimes unhospitable environment for cinema. Along with his extensive efforts to preserve and restore old films with the the Restoration Screening Room, Scorsese has often publicly spoken against the predominance of blockbusters in today’s moviegoing.

“I did a film (‘The Irishman’) with Netflix. That was a great experience. The same with Apple — even more so because we’re going theatrical,” he says of the film to open in theaters Oct. 20. “The experience watching at home is OK. It’s OK. But it’s not what it should be.”

He worries that a generation will grow up with the idea that a theatrical movie is a blockbuster, and everything else is “alternative cinema.”

“Who said movies were going to be made like they were in the first 75, 80 years? Because they were made for theaters,” says Scorsese. “That may not be the case anymore. It’s a new world.”

But Scorsese is still holding out hope. He’d like to see streaming companies build theaters.

“Maybe these new companies might say: Let’s invest in the future of the new generations for creativity,” Scorsese says. “Because a young person actually going to see a film in the theater, that person, who knows, five or 10 years later could be a wonderful novelist, painter, musician, composer, filmmaker, whatever. You don’t know where that inspiration is going to land when you throw it out there. But it’s got to be out there.”


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Scorsese waltzes with David Johansen in ‘Personality Crisis’