When You’re Strange (Eagle Vision EV309059)
Despite the brevity of their career, The Doors have a firm place in American culture with streams of books, documentaries, biopics and even a Hollywood film. When You’re Strange is the latest documentary to be produced on the band. Written and directed by Tom DiCillo and narrated by Johnny Depp, it is one of the slickest and best constructed documentary of the band produced.
There are two pitfalls directors encounter when tackling the subject of The Doors, neither of which DiCillo is able to avoid. The first, and is quite unavoidable, is the blurring of the story of the band with the story of Jim Morrison. Granted Morrison was the focal point of the band, but all too often the other three musicians, and the music itself, are treated as sidebars to the story of Morrison.
To DiCillo’s credit he does include interviews and snippets about the other members of the band. But insight into their music is very brief. John Densmore speaking about the Doors in terms of the evolution of jazz is the most interesting, and made me wish there were more such insights.
The other pitfall is entirely avoidable, which is to make vague generalizations and connections between Jim Morrison and the political climate and events of the sixties. While it is true that all bands, musicians and works of music are informed by their socio-political setting, there is also a quality in great music (and The Doors produced GREAT music) which transcends time and culture and address universal concerns.
A blatant example of this is footage of The Doors playing “The End” at the 1970 Isle Of Wight festival. The footage is stunning and the sound is great, but too often the screen shifts from the band to stock footage of Martin Luther King Jr., the assassination of Robert Kennedy, and news reel video of US troops dropping napalm on a village in Viet Nam.
This editing begs the question of the relevance between the two. What does a performance of “The End” in England in 1970 have to do with assassinations in the summer of 1968? “The End” began as a song about the ending of a personal relationship and was expanded to become a psycho-sexual drama bordering on myth, and it’s relation to American politics and foreign policy isn’t clear.
Despite those concerns, When You’re Strange is one of the best documentaries of The Doors. It opens with footage from what looks like a pristine print of Morrison’s 1969 film HWY: An American Pastoral. Clips from the film are used throughout the documentary to lend continuity to the narrative, and often used to comment upon the events discussed.
All of the facts seem correct, even mentioning commonly known details about the band such as Morrison wanting Robby Krieger to play bottle neck on every song.
DiCillo also continues the trend of contemporary documentary film-making in being more intentional in the footage used and images shown to make a point. For example, when the narrative reaches the Miami 1969 incident, Depp’s voice-over states that the band were “surprised.” While saying this, the footage shows Ray Manzarek looking surprised. The scene has nothing to do with the Miami indictment, but such editing is effective in making his point.
Overall this is a very strong documentary of the Doors. It was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the 2009 Sundance Festival, and it deserves such accolades.
The bonus material contains a fascinating interview with Jim Morrison’s father, the late Admiral George S. Morrison. This is supposedly the only time he’s been interviewed about his son before his death in 2008. Not much is mentioned of him in the older sources such as No One Here Gets Out Alive. The only pieces of information in that book were his displeasure at hearing “The End,” the letter he wrote to his son telling him that he has no talent to be a singer, and that he contested his son’s estate after the death of Pamela Courson.
The impression one gains from watching the interview is much different. He comes off as a proud and loving father who misses his son, whom he lost both to the demands of fame and his death in 1971. He reiterates his assessment that his son shouldn’t have been a rock singer because he felt his talent lay more in film-making.
If for nothing else, watching the interview with the Admiral is the most interesting part of the disc. It is unique since no other documentary has ever interviewed him, and makes it worth the asking price.