“Personality Crisis,” the lead single of the New York Dolls’ debut album, was prophetic in many ways, believed to help launch the punk movement with its release in 1973, though when cornered decades later by Conan O’Brien into taking credit for this, lead singer David Johansen would joke that it had more to do with the Newcastle Brown Ale they were drinking abroad and the memorable sight of their drummer puking all over his kit that might’ve inspired the Sex Pistols and others in the UK more than the music. Then again, the modest yet slippery answer is indicative of an artist who might’ve been announcing who he was right from the start – or the various selves he’d inhabit – over the course of a career which has taken him from playing the grungiest of clubs on East Village to holding court at the Cafe Carlyle off of Park Avenue where in the winter of 2020, Martin Scorsese and David Tedeschi settle in for an evening in which Johansson did something a bit unusual – he would sing songs he had written as himself.
Allowing a far larger audience into the intimate jazz venue than would be let in to sit side by side with Debbie Harry, among others, “Personality Crisis: One Night Only” sees Johansen perform with the same verve that made the Dolls, and later acts, the Harry Smiths and Buster Poindexter so magnetic while casually throwing off tales of planting a tree in the concrete jungle of St. Marks Place with Abbie Hoffman and showing up at Todd Rundgren’s home in Hawaii to record an album to the “I Saw the Light” singer’s surprise. It just so happens that filming took place on Johansen’s 70th birthday, but he appears to be throwing the party for everyone else and the occasion give way to exploring the many lives that the singer/songwriter has lived in a fragmentary style that resembles how its subject would seem to defy description of himself or his interests when he still searches for meaning.
With Scorsese’s appreciation of Johansen dating back to when he’d play the Dolls to get actors amped up on the set of “Mean Streets,” there is a lot of love packed into every frame of “Personality Crisis,” all carefully curated by Tedeschi, credited as a co-director here after serving as the director’s longtime editor for music docs including “Rolling Stones: Shine a Light,” “Bob Dylan: No Direction Home” and “George Harrison: Living in the Material World.” After premiering last fall at the New York Film Festival, the film is premiering on Showtime where it is bound to transform every home it plays in to the Cafe Carlyle for the night nd Tedeschi spoke about capturing the concert only a few weeks before the world would change forever and how piecing together the film during the pandemic was informed by what was happening in the outside world and how it could serve as a respite from it.
From what I understand, this came together in a bit of a whirlwind. How did you get this off the ground?
Mara [Hennessey, his wife] invited us to see the show, and [Martin and I] went maybe in May 2019 and it was everything you see [in the film]. It’s a beautiful show. David tells the story of his life. The musical performances are wonderful. He wrote or co-wrote all the songs. We were really moved, and we thought, “Well, we have to do something with this.” And Mara and David were interested, but in the world we live in, it’s not so easy to get money for any kind of documentary. And Marty kept on saying, “We have to film it now, now, now.” We thought, “Well, he’s about to film a very long shooting schedule feature film, ‘Killers of the Flower Moon,’” and I thought maybe that was the urgency. But we filmed in January . Imagine had come on board and they were incredibly supportive. Justin Wilkes and Sara Bernstein really were into the project, and what was it? Six weeks later, COVID hit and all of a sudden there were no cabaret performances in New York City for a year-and-a-half.
Someone called me up maybe four weeks into the shelter in place [order], and said, “If there’s no theater and there’s no music, is it really a city?” I thought, “Well, it’s a city without theater and live performances, but it’s a sad city. It’s sort of a dead city.” Then of course you started to have live performances outside on the street that summer, but there were no cabarets and I think somehow that was part of the urgency. Marty knew.
Was it at least nice for yourself to have the Cafe Carlyle to go back to in the footage as you’re sorting through this during the lockdown?
Yeah, I could live at the Cafe Carlyle for 60 hours a week, but I’ll add that we really wanted to document the show [and the moment] and we did the best we could. The film is dedicated to Hal Willner, who passed away during the pandemic [and was in the audience for the show]. That was part of what was going on that we all knew about, so I could get away from it with the beauty of the performance, but there’s also a section in the film where David says, “You know, there are more people who are dead than are alive” and when you’re documenting music, that’s part of it. Somehow music has more to do with time, at least to me, than any other art form. That’s maybe part of the immediacy of it. You feel the passage of time. There’s a beat.
That seems to be part of the magic of what you can do in the edit – there’s a remarkable cut in the film from the New York Dolls playing an early gig on the eve of “Trash” being released as an album to playing the same song on television and you can see the progression instantly, and it’s all connected to the song that David Johansson sings at the Carlyle. What was it like to play with history like that?
We wanted to stay faithful to the original performance at the Cafe Carlyle and to document the show. That’s why we made the movie, but when we put everything together, we realized that something’s always lost when you film it. There’s a live energy — Ellen Kuras shot it, and she and her team are extraordinary. There were four people there, but Ellen especially worked the room, as they would say. She has that camera on her shoulder and she’s shooting every angle she can find for two nights. Which for us [in the editing room], it’s not that much. But this is how I explain it. A filmmaker we admire a lot Shirley Clarke has a movie “Dance in the Sun” where there’s a dancer in a studio or on stage and it cuts, he jumps, and he lands on the beach. In a way, I use that as an inspiration because David might be at a venue downtown town at Max’s, and he might be introducing “Trash,” but then it cuts to a television performance in Germany and it’s still David, it’s the same performance, it’s the same energy and film does give you the luxury of being able to jump around in a certain way, and we play with that a lot.
I know that we also listen to Mansion of Fun, David’s radio show on Sirius, which is great. David is very knowledgeable about music, but also combining different songs and the fact that he does “Mansion of Fun” inspired us to make crazy cuts — crazier than the one that you mentioned, so we might have the music of Maria Callas cut to something very unexpected that’s not classical music, that’s Latin music, something you might not associate with David, but David is a great lover of Latin music, so it’s on the show.
How did Leah Hennessy, David’s daughter, end up becoming the person to interview him?
Things kind of happened on this project, and the truth is, things kind of happen on all our projects. We roll with the punches, and [with] the pandemic was going on, David and Mara were quite isolated and it seemed unsafe [to bring a crew to film]. And the only people that David and Mara would see was Leah, and I think Marty had a sense of how talented Leah is shooting. I knew Leah’s music and I knew her theater [work], but she lit this, she framed it, she did the interviews, she recorded the sound. It’s remarkable. And we did it because we had to do it, but the intimacy and the content of those interviews was so great because Leah did them. If anyone else had done them, if I had done them, or if Marty had done them, they wouldn’t have been so relaxed.
It also becomes fun to see that even she has trouble pinning David down on things – she’ll ask about the influence of Harry Smith, the multidisciplinary artist he named a band after, and he shrugs it off, and it seems that even in the editing, there’s a desire to channel this mystery about David. Is that something difficult to protect in cutting this together?
I don’t feel like it was difficult because David is mysterious. And in every way that he reveals himself through the course of the film, especially in the performance at the Cafe Carlyle, but also in the [present-day] interviews and the past interviews from the ’70s or the ’80s, he’s still a mysterious person. His energy is mysterious because [as] the lead singer of the New York Dolls, he was outrageous. He’s strutting down this stage, and there he is, 40 years later at the Cafe Carlyle, a very respectable uptown venue, but he has the same diamond tennis bracelet on. There’s something that so self-aware and he’s so himself that you could put him in both venues and he’s the same level. It’s David Johansen. Even when it’s Buster Poindexter, it’s David Johansen. Even when he’s the lead singer of the Harry Smiths, there’s this energy that he projects. At one point, Leah asks him, “So Buster Poindexter’s like a character [right?],” and [David says], “It’s not really a character, it’s a conceit.” And then he says, “Well, Buster’s more who I am than David Johansen.” That’s a mysterious thing to say, and yet, I bought it line, hook, and sinker. The mystery of David is David.
“Personality Crisis: One Night Only” premieres on Showtime on April 14th at 8 pm and will stream thereafter on Paramount+.