The New York Dolls’ wildly original debut album got Martin Scorsese through the making of “Mean Streets” in 1973.
Years later, Dolls frontman David Johansen enlivened the soundtrack of Scorsese’s HBO series productions “Boardwalk Empire” and “Vinyl.” Scorsese is also a regular listener of Johansen’s Sirius XM series “Mansion of Fun.”
Finally, after Scorsese caught Johansen’s career-spanning cabaret set at the Café Carlyle, the director-producer – a storied teller of New York stories – decided that the time was ripe for a documentary on the proto-punk scion of Staten Island. “Personality Crisis: One Night Only,” which debuted April 14 on Showtime, chronicles Johansen’s evolution from the Dolls to the lounge-y pop of his Buster Poindexter period through his present day life as a husband, stepfather and eminence grise of New York’s music scene.
Scorsese, Johansen, “Personality” co-director and editor David Tedeschi and executive producer Margaret Bodde gathered April 25 at the Linwood Dunn Theater in Hollywood for a panel session on the feature documentary. Also joining the session were Johansen’s wife, Mara Hennessey, also an executive producer, and his stepdaughter, Leah Hennesey, who conducts present-day interviews of Johansen for the film.
“The musicologist that he is is something that has inspired me for the past 25-30 years,” Scorsese told the crowd of Johansen.
Scorsese and his wife, Ellen, Tedeschi and Bodde were inspired to make the movie after being impressed by the range of music and styles that Johansen brought to his Café Carlyle performance.
“It’s very beautiful and moving,” Scorsese said. “The music was great, the lyrics and his presence was really something. After it was all over, we just looked at each other and said ‘What do you want to do?’ And then we said ‘Well, let’s shoot it.’ ”
“Personality Crisis” is built around the footage captured during a January 2020 performance at the Café Carlyle by Johansen. Weeks later, plans for the documentary were up-ended by the dawning of the COVID crisis. That led to the decision to have Leah Hennessey conduct interviews of Johansen while the family quarantined in their Staten Island home. Scorsese and Tedeschi quickly realized how much the inclusion of Mara and Leah in the project would add depth to the portrait of the artist.
“It’s not that David is so cantankerous. He’s just not interested in his own past. I mean – he’s really not interested,” said Leah. “When I first started doing these interviews I was really doing it as almost like anthropological data gathering.”
As a budding filmmaker herself, Leah felt the pressure of having to deliver her raw work to no less a accomplished helmer than Scorsese. “Anyone who’s been at film school knows what it’s like when you’re by yourself shooting. You have this hubris of like, I don’t need a crew. And then all the recorders stop and the cameras broke,” Leah said. “It was like that, expect that I had to turn over all of my footage to Scorsese.”
Johansen admits he took some persuading to embrace the idea of a feature-length look at his life. After seeing Bruce Springsteen’s success on Broadway, Johansen wondered if he might find a perch on the Great White Way. But the pandemic closed that outlet.
Usually when documentarians come calling, Johansen takes a pass.
“A lot of people, they do documentaries about music and they ask me to be in them,” Johansen observed. “And I normally refused. Because it’s the most horrible thing to have an opinion one day and then two years later see it [playing on TV].”
For Leah, doing interviews with her stepfather was a lesson in becoming a better listener. “I think it was the first time in our lives that I got a word in edgewise,” Johansen joked.
Scorsese also gave Leah some important guidance on shooting in the documentary form. He learned quite a bit making the 1974 documentary “Italian-American” revolving around the stories of his parents, Charles and Catherine Scorsese.
“I hit the slate and then my mother took over,” Scorsese said. “My father didn’t want to be part of it at first. But she got him to come over closer to her on the couch. And then I would ask a few questions. But I learned to just shut up and listen…And so that’s why I said [to Leah] ‘Don’t force it.’ At some point, he’s going to say something. It’s going to happen.”
“Personality Crisis” is also peppered with vintage footage of the Dolls and Johansen at various stages of his long career. During the panel, Johansen recounted his earliest memory of performing in front of an audience as a youth at a Battle of the Bands event Staten Island.
“I closed my eyes and I started singing ‘Oh baby, Boogaloo down Broadway’ and when I was done I thought, Why were they applauding,” he says. “It was a great moment. And I decided to make it my life’s work.”
(Pictured top, from right: Martin Scorsese, David Tedeschi, Margaret Bodde, Leah Hennessey, Mara Hennessey and David Johansen on April 25 at the Linwood Dunn Theater.)