Sometime in the late 1960s, on an acid trip amongst fellow liberated youth, you gather to watch a raw, rough rock act unfold. Rather than a concert, though, this is the scene set by Tom DiCillo’s documentary “When You’re Strange,” about the Doors and the genius craze feeding lead singer Jim Morrison. The film recounts the career of the band behind hit songs like “Light My Fire,” “Touch Me” and “Riders on the Storm,” from its precipitous rise to fame with its self-titled 1967 debut to Morrison’s mysterious death in July 1971.
“When You’re Strange”
At the Michigan
Gathering together unseen footage of live performances with now-legendary images of the rock group, it serves as a fierce and honest presentation of the Doors’s highest and lowest days as a band, garnering the label of “the true story of the Doors” from keyboardist Ray Manzarek in a 2009 Billboard interview. In opposition to Oliver Stone’s 1991 biopic “The Doors,” “When You’re Strange” lays claim to true events in the band’s history. It is a haunting exercise in the stranger-than-fiction nature that reality can have.
Tightly cut under narration by Johnny Depp, the film uses as its backbone a slow-paced, continuous sequence of Morrison riding down a highway underneath breakneck-pace musical montage. It portrays the cultural effect of the Doors’s music as arresting and overwhelming, carrying the youthful spirit of the period into a sharp, almost unbearable crescendo before falling back to reality.
The concert and band footage is revealing and almost surreal to watch — it’s both counterpoint to and evidence of Morrison’s legendary rebel reputation. As the life force behind the band’s music, Morrison is depicted as both the innocent, romantic poet looking for enlightenment through LSD use and the frenzied ringleader of the band’s circus-like performances. A case in point is footage of the infamous 1969 Miami performance that landed Morrison with six charges, including indecent exposure and public intoxication.
Throughout the arc of the film, Morrison’s multiple personalities slowly collapse into one indistinguishable identity. Against the foreign and domestic violence of ’60s America, as well as the abrupt deaths of fellow musicians Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, Morrison turns to drugs and alcohol and a feeling of despondence as he brings the band down with him. Confronted by a rising tide of conservatism in the U.S., the Doors persisted together for six years, recording six albums before Morrison’s death.
While an amalgamation of strange and fascinating images, the film offers little in the way of a new narrative for the Doors. Carried for 90 minutes at a rapid pace, the story of the Doors’s career feels unnaturally compressed. In pursuing factual detail, DiCillo abbreviates moments in the band’s career that ought to be explored. He differentiates his film from Stone’s “The Doors” — which incurred criticism from bandmembers for taking liberties in its portrayal — by affirming the truth about the band, but nonetheless fails to delve into previously neglected moments within its history.
Part of this is manifested through the film’s focus on Morrison. The continuous insistence on Morrison’s prominence becomes repetitive and frustrating as the other three members are quickly pushed to the background. Morrison’s unique genius positions him as protagonist of the Doors’s career, which seems to end with his death in 1971. DiCillo ignores the two forgotten years from 1971 to 1973, during which the remaining members recorded two additional albums.
While the film is only visually revealing, it seems to appropriately fulfill its purpose. Walking away from “When You’re Strange” is much like walking away from an engrossing rock concert, leaving each spectator with the same yearning for the music. The film is more musical than cinematic, and puts the viewer in the seat of a participant rather than that of a witness. Forty years after the Doors’s career, the poetry and intensity of its live performances are still relevant, and “When You’re Strange” takes viewers back to its heyday with new vigor and an honest outlook. Even if only for the fresh images of the band, DiCillo’s documentary is a worthwhile and spirited trip.