When You’re Strange: A Film About the Doors
Directed by Tom DiCillo Eagle Rock [Two and a half stars]DVDs, Reviews September 10, 2010
There’s very little that hasn’t been written, known or debated about The Doors, arguably one of the most influential American bands of the Sixties. There have been biographies (the fantastic and definitive Break on Through by James Riordan and Jerry Prochnicky comes to mind), autobiographies by the individual band members, coffee table glossies (The Doors by Ben Fong-Torres), movies (Oliver Stone’s biopic, The Doors) and numerous other memorabilia. So what can a documentary about the band redress that hasn’t already been flogged to death? Tom DiCillo sought to find the answer when he decided to direct When You’re Strange, a biography/documentary of the band with the blessings of the remaining band members. Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek went as far as to call it “the true story of the Doors, the anti-Oliver Stone film.”
So what you’re left expecting is an in-depth look at the troubled band, featuring retrospective, introspective interviews with the surviving Doors members, maybe previously unheard stories from their very eventful career, or at least a substantial bit of archival footage. What you’re getting is a paint-by-numbers audio-visual presentation put together entirely of photographs and video footage of the band, and narrated – History Channel style – by Johnny Depp. That’s it, really.
To his credit, DiCillo does have a few aces up his sleeve in some fantastic, previously unseen footage of both the band and frontman Jim Morrison. Take the opening, for instance, where a young Morrison or gets out of a wrecked car and tries to hitch a ride on a lonely highway. When you see him driving the car later and fiddling with the radio, only to get the news of his death, you’re not quite sure if you’re really watching Morrison or a look-alike. This footage is from Morrison’s 1969 50-minute short, HWY: An American Pastoral, made available for public viewing for the first time ever, cleverly overdubbed with the news reports of his death. The fragments of this film, shown intermittently through the documentary, are riveting and strangely disturbing.
You want to find fault with the documentary on several levels. Yes, the lack of input from guitarist Robby Krieger, drummer John Densmore, and Manzarek is keenly felt. Yes, the dour narration is superficial and occasionally redundant when it simply reiterates – with a little overt drama – what you’re plainly seeing on screen. Yes, you’ve seen most of the footage before, in videos and the odd music-channel documentaries and even the over-the-top pout-and-swagger re-enactment by Val Kilmer in Oliver Stone’s The Doors. But you begin to understand the director’s motivations as the footage reels you in and then sinks its claws into you. The documentary is dominated by Morrison – pensively skinny dipping in limid rock pools Adonis-like, standing by a dying coyote on the road, dancing, twitching on stage like a shaman of pelvic thrusts – he eclipses his band here as he did in life. And you can’t tear your eyes away from him. Even as he goes from tortured poet to pathetic drunk, there’s an animal magnetism to him even as he unravels.
But the lack of coverage given to the other band members can’t be overlooked. By all accounts, Morrison had the most tolerant bandmates in the history of music. No matter how many times he screwed up or came to a gig or rehearsal drunk, no matter how much of the limelight he hogged or fought with the rest of the band, they were always there to support him and cover up for him. It would have been interesting explore the motivations of the rest of the band. And to repeatedly emphasise on the culture of the Sixties, DiCillo falls back time and again on hackneyed footage of Vietnam, JFK and the hippies but shows no other bands that were such an essential part of the culture of that era. To a newbie, it would seem almost as if the Doors were the only band existing in a musical lacuna at that time. Where is Love, Bon Dylan, Joan Baez and all the movers and shakers of the post-beat generation? What did the music of the Doors mean in relation to all these other artists? Arguably, it’s not a extensive study of the band but it’s almost impossible to ignore the rest of the music of that time. Recommended only for die-hard fans or for those who know next to nothing about the Doors.