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Personality Crisis: One Night Only

Being a child of the ‘80s, my first encounters with Buster Poindexter were ones that his alter ego David Johansen would probably like to forget: his supporting performance in “Scrooged” and the one-hit wonder success of “Hot Hot Hot,” which the artist calls “the bane of my existence” in a new documentary directed by David Tedeschi and Martin Scorsese “Personality Crisis: One Night Only.” 

Much more of a concert film than a bio-doc, Tedeschi and Scorsese’s movie intercuts a cabaret show the singer did in January 2020 with archival and interview footage in a way that feels organically true to its subject matter. Near the end, Poindexter speaks about how he likes to leave people guessing and how ambiguity is good for art. Those statements broke the documentary open for me, allowing me to appreciate it on a different level. “One Night Only” gave me a much greater appreciation of Johanssen as a singer and songwriter, but I suspect the doc will play even better to people who know more than I do about the formative era of '70s NYC punk.

"They were very violent, they were very witty, and they were very intelligent," says Morrissey in an archival interview about The New York Dolls. That unpredictable blend of anarchy and wit has defined Johansen’s career as an artist, and it’s on display in all of the performances and excellent interviews in this project. Scorsese and Tedeschi—the latter who edited “No Direction Home: Bob Dylan,” “Shine a Light,” “Rolling Thunder Revue,” and more—know how to draw an admittedly private man out of his shell without forcing the issue. “One Night Only” works best when you put aside any expectations for a traditionally revelatory bio-doc. This is not that movie. And yet it makes the emotional beats that push through more powerful, such as when Johansen sounds like he’s getting choked up during a song or just belting out one of his great lyrics.

On that note, it’s impossible not to walk away from this project without a greater appreciation of Johansen as an artist. His voice has a wicked brilliance at this phase in his career, and it reminded me of the joy I get from modern poets like Tom Waits and Nick Cave. He’s seen a lot and become a hell of a storyteller, but he’s seen most of it through a wink and greeted it with a mischievous smile. “One Night Only” becomes the story of a man surrounded by music his whole life who knew how to filter those influences through a distinct voice. The film sometimes runs too long, but its subject has earned that length. He sounds phenomenal, and he’s filled with, well, personality.

The best aspects of “One Night Only” play out like a visual accompaniment to his show, digging into archival material and interview segments. He mentions Maria Callas, so why not show a clip of Maria Callas? After Morrissey is mentioned as one of the biggest early Dolls fans, they cut in a bit of him performing from that era. Is it necessary? No, but it creates a unique, organic tone for the film, one that weaves in and out of history and music and is rewarding once you adjust to its wavelength. Much like Johansen’s career, enjoying this documentary requires approaching it differently than the typical concert film or bio-doc. It's worth the effort.

On Showtime tonight.

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Managing Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and GQ, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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Film Credits

Personality Crisis: One Night Only movie poster

Personality Crisis: One Night Only (2023)

127 minutes

Cast

David Johansen as Self

Director

Cinematographer

Editor

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