Dir.Tom DiCillo. US, 2009, 90 minutes.
With archival footage from The Doors set against scenes of the violence of their times, When You’re Strange tracks the brief rise and fall of the band whose sound helped define the era’s altered state. Tom DiCillo’s debut feature-length documentary after six comedies has a built-in audience of fans who bought Doors recordings and those who still buy them today. The film also has Jim Morrison, a bona fide martyr/star with Caravaggio looks, to add to the sheer novelty of Doors footage after all these years. Home video sales in particular should be very healthy.
When You’re Strange observes but never penetrates the mystery of the US Navy admiral’s son who became the rebel of his generation
DiCillo’s film has a small window in which to tell its story, Morrison’s short life which ended in 1971 at the age of 27 in Paris, where the singer had gone to write poetry after leaving the band. The Doors formed in 1965 when Morrison and keyboard player Ray Manzarek teamed up with jazz drummer John Densmore and Robby Krieger, who had played guitar for all of six months. (Light My Fire was the first song Krieger wrote). They were sacked as the house band of the Whisky a Go-Go in Los Angeles, but not before a record executive saw them.
In the studio, a memorable sound emerged from their three instruments. Soon the hits rolled out, thanks to the iconic Morrison as much as to the music.
When You’re Strange relies mostly on footage of the band and its performances shot by Paul Ferrara, a friend of Morrison’s from their days at UCLA Film School. Often hallucinatory, it will win over anyone who doubts the intensity of Morrison’s appeal. Woven through are news video clips of the crises of the time - Civil Rights demonstrations, bloody student unrest, and the Vietnam War. Bookending the film are unidentified scenes from Morrison’s own 1969 film, HWY: An American Pastoral, a solemn, meditative journey through the desert.
Besides its archival richness, the strength of DiCillo’s documentary is that it is genuinely cinematic, a visual journey. Magnificently edited by Mickey Blythe and Kevin Krasny, it captures the seductive mood of Doors concerts, which often collapsed into anarchy as Morrison improvised and the band just kept playing. In Miami in 1969, when a drunken Morrison threatened to expose himself, the camera caught the chaos that followed.
When You’re Strange observes but never penetrates the mystery of the US Navy admiral’s son who became the rebel of his generation. Other mysteries are more problematic. We are never told clearly where the Morrison film footage at the beginning and end comes from, or if the bearded figure who looks something like Morrison is indeed the man himself.
A utilitarian voice-over narrative by DiCillo spoon-feeds information, presumably to those who were born long after Morrison died. And the director’s solemn efforts to link Morrison’s destiny to his cataclysmic era through news footage don’t say much more than that it all happened at the same time.
Wolf Films/Strange Pictures
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