A hypnotic journey through the world of The Doors that chronicles their meteoric rise and fall in memorable fashion, using original footage.

James Plath's picture

Oliver Stone tried in his biopic "The Doors" (1991), but nothing captures the look and feel and out-of-it performances from the Sixties like real footage. That's what we get from Tom DiCillo in "When You're Strange: A Film about The Doors," which is narrated by Johnny Depp so unobtrusively that you don't even realize it's Depp. What mesmerizes you and moves you from frame to frame and sequence to sequence isn't the sedate voiceover, but rather the home movies, amateur footage, newsreel stock, and vintage photos of Jim Morrison and The Doors. And their music. Some rock documentaries opt for musical soundtracks that flow like melodic voiceovers while different images tell a different story on the screen, but DiCillo went for the real footage. That's what makes "When You're Strange" so successful. Most of the music is actually performed by The Doors on camera.

That means, of course, that despite a PCM Stereo or DTS-HD MA 5.1 option, the sound isn't concert quality. But that's a trade-off I'd take any day of the week in order to be able to see essentially raw footage of a legendary rock band. There's stuff here that no one has ever seen before, and that includes a bonus feature that was obviously gathered for inclusion: the first time that Morrison's estranged father offers his take on his famous son.

Twenty-seven was apparently the lifespan for rock stars in the late Sixties and early Seventies who drank too much, took too many psychedelics, and dabbled in harder drugs like heroin and cocaine, which were just starting to make their way into the mainstream.

Jimi Hendrix died in September 1970 at the age of 27. Janis Joplin died a month later at the age of 27. And Morrison, The Doors' volatile lead singer who also put too many poisons into his body in order to feel good, died in July 1971. Three big names in counterculture rock 'n' roll, and three nearly identical fates.

Though DiCillo's film focuses on Morrison, as you'd expect it would, he also traces The Doors' history, starting with the chance meeting of Morrison, who'd just graduated from UCLA film school (without distinction), and Ray Manzarek, a keyboardist who recognized the poetic power of Morrison's lyrics. Morrison wasn't a singer at first, and was so shy that he turned his back on audiences when he first began. But quickly the man who at age 16 was obsessed with Elvis Presley and was reading William Blake--the band's name comes from Blake's poem, "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell": "If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite"--began giving audiences the "spectacle" he thought they paid to see. He became dangerous and unpredictable onstage.

DiCillo tells the story of the band's first gig at The London Fog, then their quick hiring as the house band at Whisky A Go Go and a three-album record deal from Elektra that came just as quickly. But one night Jim doesn't show, and when the band finds him and drags him onstage, he's so out of it that he wants to sing "The End," a long and rambling song about the breakup with his high school girlfriend. No one knows where he's going, but when he starts in with a little graphic Oedipal lyrics it leads to the group's firing. The Whisky A Go Go owner calls Jim "a sick bastard" the voiceover says, but then it's quickly on to the recording studio.

Everything you see is actual footage, including what I thought was a full-color reenactment showing an actor as Jim Morrison driving toward a symbolic wreck--which The Doors' manager Jeff Jampol assures me is really Jim. That footage is made up of outtakes from Morrison's unreleased 1969 film, "HWY: An American Pastoral." But all of the footage is phenomenal. There are shots of the old Whisky A Go Go, shots of the musicians in recording sessions, performance and practice footage, and a narrative that uses albums and album covers as milestone markers. Morrison, we're told, had no musical training and couldn't read a note, and DiCillo paints a much more sympathetic picture of him than Stone did. He risks speculation as well, sharing, for example, in voiceover as Morrison signs autographs, "It's hard to tell if he's mingling with his fans or if he needs something crucial from them to survive."

To add a historical context, DiCillo also includes footage of the Sixties, which "began with a shot" (Kennedy's assassination) and ended with Nixon's resignation. "The Civil Rights movement intensifies, the war in Vietnam gets bigger and bloodier, the young movement catches fire, making everyone over 30 the enemy," the voiceover says. "A massive cultural earthquake is shaking the country," and out of the cracks comes The Doors.

There are more personal details, too, as when DiCillo tells us that Morrison loved Robby's bottle slide so much that he wanted to use it on every song, or that at age 18 he requested the complete works of Friedrich Nietzsche. At the height of Morrison's fame, DiCillo tells us that his father, Admiral Morrison of the U.S. Navy, commanded an aircraft carrier off the waters of Vietnam. And his on-again-off-again girlfriend Pam turned up on Mick Jagger's lap in the front row of a concert at the Hollywood Bowl. There's plenty of footage of Morrison's onstage antics, including long clips of him performing with five or six uniformed policeman milling about onstage. He was so out of it that he hardly noticed them.

According to DiCillo, who did a commendable job of research, Morrison's last words were "Are you still there?" It's a fitting line, since you got the feeling watching him perform that he was always trying to connect with people . . . with something. That includes band members John Densmore, Robby Krieger, and Manzarek, who seemed clueless what to do to help their friend as he hurtled deeper into self-destructive behavior.

The Doors still sell a million albums per year, and over the span of their 54-month lifespan as a band, they sold 89 million records. "To some, he was a poet," DiCillo says. "To others, he was just another rock star." And in a documentary that tries to steer a pretty straight line through the facts, he offers "proof" for both ways of thinking. There's no easy thesis here, and while what is really a history of a band evolves into the biography of its lead singer, "When You're Strange" is a hypnotic journey through the world of The Doors that chronicles their meteoric rise and fall in memorable fashion, using original footage. And because "When You're Strange" isn't broken up by talking heads or an intrusive narration, it flows exceptionally well--almost as if we're all groupies privileged to be tagging along.

The box lists this at 1.78:1 widescreen, but it's hard to tell because so much of the footage seems shot at 1.33:1 and stretched. The resolution is 1080p, but "When You're Strange" is one of those discs that makes you wonder why it's being released in Hi-Def. Most of the footage is so rough that there are ghosts, bars, flickers of imperfection, and heavy grain. But hey, this is vintage stuff, most of it raw, and maybe Hi-Def is one way to squeeze the most out of exceedingly rough source materials. Just don't go into this thinking you're going to see the kind of Hi-Def detail and 3-dimensionality that we get from concert videos.

There are two audio options, and neither of them will blow you away. The English PCM Stereo 2.0 distributes more of the narration across the center and front speakers, while the English DTS-HD MA 5.1 is more center-speaker oriented but with a richer sound. Even the 5.1 option doesn't involve the remaining speakers much, and there's not much dynamism in either option. Once more, it's not concert-style sound. It's guerilla documentary-style sound, which is certainly compatible with the sometimes rough-looking images.

Morrison's sister and father appear, the latter going on record about his son for the very first time. It's a brief bonus feature but a welcome one, and you suspect that the interviews were originally intended to be intercut with other footage in the film. Good call keeping the talking heads out. The other extra is a fold-out poster.

Bottom Line:
"When You're Strange" is a solid biography of an important rock band that features original footage shot between 1966 and 1971. With an unobtrusive voiceover and an absence of talking heads, Tom DiCillo's film offers a portrait as raw and real as The Doors themselves. This is a great rock documentary.


Film Value