“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 revealing 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 he 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.