‘When You’re Strange’: Opening the Doors

April 5, 2010

The ripples from the music of the Doors continue to be felt, more than 40 years after “Light My Fire” first burned up the airwaves (and there wasn’t another song in 1967, with the possible exception of “Somebody to Love,” that you heard more frequently on the radio).


Yet there are whole generations to whom this seminal rock band is nothing more than part of their parents’ deteriorating album collection or the subject of a fanciful Oliver Stone movie or something that occasionally pops up on the classic-rock station.


So Tom DiCillo’s “When You’re Strange” (opening in limited release Friday, 4/9/10) is a welcome cinematic excursion, exploration and excavation. Using a nicely understated narration (read by Johnny Depp) and a trove of archival footage that was previously unseen, as well as the vast Doors musical catalog, DiCillo plunges you into the world of Jim Morrison and his bandmates as they set sail on what was an intense and pervasive four year ride on the charts and into the psyche of American teens (and the world).


DiCillo makes the wise choice of ignoring the documentary convention of talking heads. No one needs to explain the Doors to us; no one has to pontificate or offer retrospective interpretation or wisdom. Instead, working from a ton of new footage, DiCillo lets the band and the music speak for itself.


Yet they do so with a minimum of old interview footage. Rather, he takes advantage of the fact that Morrison and keyboardst Ray Manzarek were both film students at UCLA, who had the foresight to engage another would-be filmmaker to follow them around with a camera, filming them backstage and in performance (usually silently) when they were at their ease, relatively untouched by the massive star-making machinery or their own fame.


That includes the opening sequence: a bearded, woozy-looking Morrison emerging from the wreckage of a car by the side of a desert highway, wearing a tie-dyed Henley-collared shirt, jeans and a bomber jacket. He surveys the scene, then steps to the side of the highway and flags down a car, where the driver is … Jim Morrison. It’s part of a film Morrison himself made in his spare time, after the band hit.


Other sequences stand out, particularly a concert at an outdoor football field on Long Island, in which Morrison, with no bodyguards or other visible security, goes out before the concert and just walks among the crowd, talking to the kids who would engage with him. Some just want to touch him, but others seem pleased at the chance to chat with a rock god who was unconvinced of his own divinity.


The Doors – or, at least, Morrison, through the Doors music – always gave off a Dionysian vibe, mixed with romantic visions of what a poet’s life should be. It was as if he was living the idea that the world was full of experiences, good and bad, and he was going to sample them all. Morrison seemed caught up in the idea of William Blake’s “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” which included the quote from which the band’s name came: “If the doors of perception were cleansed, every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite.”


The music itself has stood the test of time and reinforces its reputation upon being reheard. But watching the band’s efforts in the studio and on the road, there’s also the retrospective sense of time being lost, of Morrison’s demons or whatever they were pulling him away from his work to drink and take acid to excess.


DiCillo doesn’t try to explain Morrison’s failings; he simply reports them. Morrison’s dissolution is tragic but DiCillo doesn’t have to tell us that and, so, he doesn’t. He simply chronicles the opportunities lost, as Morrison wrestles with whatever it is that draws him toward the fires of self-destruction.


What emerges is an intriguing portrait of a poetic, anti-authoritarian soul – perhaps even a contrarian one. What’s amazing is how hot he burned for how long, how true his vision was and how long-lasting.


If you were a fan of the Doors, then of course you won’t miss “When You’re Strange.” And if you weren’t a fan, well, you will be by the end of this compelling and involving documentary.


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