My wife and I have a bit of history with David Johansen, having seen him a few times during the late-70s/early-80s, when he was fronting his first band as a solo artist. We were fans, and one enjoyable aspect of Personality Crisis is remembering those years and how much he meant to us then. It was like visiting an old friend to see him here, when we all have grown old (at least, older). The film reminds us that it's good to still be around ... Johansen is the only New York Doll who is still with us.
"Personality Crisis" is the perfect title for the movie. Johansen was a New York Doll, then he was a solo artist under his own name, then he was Buster Poindexter, then he headed a band named after the legendary Harry Smith, and then he rejoined the Dolls who were still around (remarkably, it was a successful reunion ... they cut three albums together under the Dolls' name). As Johansen says during one interview, he was a one-hit wonder twice (under two names, of course). One Night Only is a concert film with interviews, the concert being in a small New York cabaret on the occasion of Johansen's 70th birthday (COVID was about to rear its ugly head, unbeknownst to us). The concert has a theme, beyond the star's birthday ... he notes, it's Buster Poindexter (who is him) singing the songs of David Johansen (who is him). As I say, "Personality Crisis" is a fine title.
Of course, that title first appeared as the opening track of the first New York Dolls album, and thus was our introduction to that great band, and by extension, to Johansen.
It was the first of many great opening album tracks/statements from seminal New York bands (think "Blitzkrieg Bop" by Ramones, and Patti Smith's "Gloria" ... Jesus died for somebody' sins, but not hers). The Dolls were compared at times to the Rolling Stones, with Johansen the obvious Mick Jagger guy and Johnny Thunders as Keith Richards, if Keef had died of drugs instead of defying the odds. Thunders was a fascinating guitar playing presence ... he always sounded like he was one step away from spinning off into the gutter with his guitar wailing loudly. Johansen's later bands would feature more traditional guitarists playing cleaner solos, but he was never able to match the sound he got playing with Thunders.
Anyway, I'm not talking much about the movie, which is a bit unfair. Martin Scorsese and David Tedeschi and a lot of great assistants (not the least being Johansen's wife Mara Hennessey) do a good job of integrating interviews and archival footage into the film, while still allowing Johansen to perform his songs complete during the concert itself (thank goodness). Something of a character study emerges, but for all his chameleon performances, Johansen is ultimately a bit too private for Scorsese and company to really get inside the artist. And their love of his work teeters too closely to hagiography. But it's a loving portrait of a man who is perhaps less known today than he deserves.