When You're Strange: A Film About The Doors [Blu-ray]
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When You're Strange, written and directed by the award-winning Tom DiCillo, is the first feature documentary released on The Doors. Graced by the narration of Johnny Depp, it carries the audience through the journeys of vocalist Jim Morrison, keyboardist Ray Manzarek, guitarist Robby Krieger, and drummer John Densmore. This 90-minute presentation features never-before-seen rare archival film, pulled from their inception in 1966 to Morrison's passing in 1971. These snapshot scenes of the band's history is as much an intimate experience, as it is revealing.
After being featured at the Sundance, Berlin, Deauville, and San Sebastian Film Festivals, music fans who didn't catch this in theaters can now relish in this extraordinary documentary. It celebrates the collaborative power of this illustrious rock quartet and their revolutionary fusion of creativity and thought-provoking rebellion.
Of course that's Johnny Depp narrating When You're Strange, the 2010 documentary about the Doors: who else but Hollywood's biggest fan of counterculture history? The film's other prominent attraction is the treasure trove of heretofore unscreened footage from the band's heyday, including backstage material, film-school stuff, and a curious project shot by (and starring) Jim Morrison after the group had broken through. That color footage, which When You're Strange returns to throughout its running time, has a bearded, zonked Morrison driving through the Southwest desert, on the road to who knows where. For fans, this footage is fascinating to watch, although the actual narrative of the band's rise and flameout will be very familiar if you already know the story. And even for newbies, the breathless, grandiloquent nature of writer-director Tom DiCillo's approach will likely be a bit off-putting. Made with the participation of band members Ray Manzarek, Robbie Krieger, and John Densmore, the movie adopts a general air of sadness about Morrison's substance abuse, noting that a band intervention led to but one week of sobriety for their lead singer/shaman. It's not all gloom: footage of Morrison wading through a pre-concert crowd catches some of the giddy promise of his unpredictability, which seems so in tune with the era. Those fresh glimpses of an icon make this film worth seeing, even if you've traveled down this road before. --Robert Horton
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Having acquired access to a treasure trove of previously unreleased 1966-71 video from Paul Ferrara, an LA film-school colleague of Morrison's, DiCillo has crafted a beautifully edited and sparsely narrated tome that for the most part lets the images and the music speak for themselves.
The opening footage is from a DiCillo directed vignette featuring a Morrison look-a-like walking alongside a desert highway and hitching a ride. Scenes from this short film are used throughout as interludes whilst the plot points of The Doors story unfold. With a brisk running time of 82 minutes, this documentary has no lulls, and depicts the tragedies and triumphs of The Doors 54 months of superstardom. A heavy hand is dealt to Morrison; instead of being lauded for his poetry, showmanship and unbridled charisma, we hear of how his bandmates spent the better part of their tour of duty lambasting him for his drinking, drugging and womanizing.
The archival footage is amazing. For example the 8mm reel of the band members spending time together on a boat as the sun is going down gives a real grounded perspective of four guys who went from nothing to world reknown celebrities in less than a year. Another reel of Morrison walking through a crowd on the way to the stage to begin the show has him talking casually with fans, with no air of disdain but a real appreciation for their attendance.Read more ›
I tell you this because, if you feel identified with what I stated above, you will HATE this "documentary". I remember when Oliver Stone's movie came out, the living members said that it was a pretty picture painted of Jim, and that it was very inaccurate (specially in magazines... such as Guitar Legends, and others). Well, I guess they felt they needed to set the record straight.
In this "documentary", we see Jim portrayed as a person with mild talent that was given much more attention than he deserved because of his looks and his on-stage performance, rather than his poetic capabilities or his singing abilities, which, throughout the movie, are being put down.
The only thing that I liked about this "documentary" is that you see that no matter what Jim did, or how supposedly irresponsible and volatile he was, the other members never kicked him out. Why, you might ask yourself, at the end of the film, did they not just kick him out, if he was so unreliable and untalented?
The simple answer: Jim FED them. It was Jim's talent that kept The Doors alive, his charisma, his poetry. And it is still feeding them. How many of the people who bought this film, would have bought it if this wasn't about The Doors, but about Ray, Robbie or John?
Save yourself the heartache of seeing Jim portrayed as a Clown, and remember him for who he really was.
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Surprisingly, it has taken until 2010, 45 years (!) after UCLA film students Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek first starting kicking around the idea of forming a band, for a proper full-length documentary feature about The Doors to appear, Tom DiCillo's When You're Strange. You'll notice I said, "about The Doors". I felt that Oliver Stone's 1991 biopic ultimately lost its way as a true portrait of the band, because it was too myopically fixated on the Jim Morrison legend; Morrison the Lizard King, the Dionysian rock god, the drunken poet, the shaman. Yes, he was all of that (perhaps more of a showman than a shaman), but he was only 25% of the equation that made The Doors...well, The Doors. That's what I like about DiCillo's film; he doesn't gloss over the contributions of the other three musicians.
In fact, one of the things you learn in the film is that Morrison himself always insisted that all songwriting credits go to "The Doors" as an entity, regardless of which band member may have had the dominant hand in the composition of any particular song (when you consider that Morrison couldn't read a note, that's a pragmatic stance for him to take). The band's signature tune, the #1 hit "Light My Fire" was actually composed by Robbie Krieger-and was allegedly the first song he ever wrote (talk about beginner's luck). He's a great guitar player too (he was trained in flamenco, and had only been playing electric for 6 months at the band's inception). Manzarek and Densmore were no slouches either; they had a classical and jazz background, respectively. When you piece these snippets together along with Morrison's interests in poetry, literature, film and improvisational theatre (then sprinkle in a few tabs of acid) you finally begin to get a picture of why this band had such a unique vibe. They've been copied, but never equaled.
The film looks to have been a labor of love by the director. Johnny Depp provides the narration, and DiCillo has assembled some great footage; it's all well-chosen, sensibly sequenced and beautifully edited. Although there are a fair amount of clips and stories that will qualify as old hat to Doors aficionados (the "Light My Fire" performance on the Sullivan Show, the infamous Miami concert "riot", etc.), there is a treasure trove of rare footage. One fascinating (but all too brief) clip shows the band in the studio constructing the song "Wild Child" during the sessions for "The Soft Parade". The real revelation is the interwoven excerpts from Morrison's experimental 1969 film "HWY: An American Pastoral". Although it is basically a bearded Morrison driving around the desert (wearing his trademark leather pants), it's mesmerizing, surreal footage. DiCillo must have had access to a pristine master print, because it looks like it was shot last week. It wasn't until the credits rolled that I realized this wasn't one of those dreaded recreations, utilizing a lookalike. As a matter of fact, Morrison has never appeared so "alive" on film. It's eerie.
For me, I was born in 1964 so by the time I discovered The Doors, Jim had been dead 7 years. I was rummaging through a stack of old out-of-rotation LPs that a local radio DJ gave to my older sister. In the mix was The Soft Parade. Having heard of The Doors, I gave it a listen. I remember thinking to myself, is this really The Doors' music, but the names on the back of the album confirmed it. Anyway, I liked what I heard and wanted to hear more. At that time, my music collection was mainly British bands like The Who, The Kinks, Led Zeppelin, and Pink Floyd. The Doors fit right in very nicely.
As to When You're Strange (I have the Blu-Ray version) I found it to be entertaining. I have seen some of the footage before, but not this clean or sounding as good. As to the story, well, most everyone probably knows it, so this documentary doesn't veer to far away from what most fans already know. However, it is edited very nicely and covers as much as an 85 minute documentary can reasonably cover. To truly tell the full story with in-depth album by album coverage would require a multi-disc anthology set.
I recommend When You're Strange to both the casual and avid fan of The Doors. I was very impressed with the clips from Jim's Highway movie as well as clips from his UCLA days and from when he was 16. The film is very fair and represents all band members. Certainly Morrison is the most notorious member and therefore, gets more focus. However, as time has proven, despite the vast musical talents of Ray, Robbie, and John, they really weren't anything without Jim as their catalyst.
What The Doors did in 54 months is incredible and this film reminds us of those accomplishments. It also clearly shows that Morrison knew, well before the other 3 realized it, when the music was over.
Unfortunately, "When You're Strange" is not quite the intoxicating blast from the past I'd hoped it would be. The story the film tells is familiar - in fact there was almost nothing in the film that was not told with much more detail and passion in "No One Here Gets Out Alive" (at least as I recall it more than twenty years later). There is some very intriguing footage, some of which I understand has been unpublished until now - and the subject matter held enough interest that I wasn't bored. The problem is with the basic structure of the film, organized around the very bland and utterly conventional history-lesson narrative of a fairly unenthusiastic narrator. I would love to see what Isaac Julien might have done with this material - his Derek not only gave insight into the life of Derek Jarman, but had its own distinctive and memorable artistic voice. This film is, for better or worse, Jim Morrison the stoner prophet, packaged for PBS.
The film starts out strong, with footage I'd never seen before that seems to have been created as a kind of visual accompaniment to one of the storylines from the Doors' song "Riders on the Storm": somewhere in the desert there is a car accident, and a bearded Morrison emerges unscathed from a shattered vehicle, hitches a ride, and is later seen driving away in the same vehicle, no longer as passenger. "If you give this man a ride sweet memory will die ...." Janis Joplin on the radio is interrupted then by a real radio broadcast that reports the famous singer Jim Morrison to have died in his bathtub under mysterious circumstances - and then we see an image of a candle going out and a montage of images of The Doors in reverse: what follows, clearly, will explore what happened and why this unique talent had died at such a young age.
The problem is that what follows is not so much an exploration of a mystery as an explanation of a history. A narrator tells the story of the life of young Jim Morrison, passing quickly through his childhood, as a voracious reader and Elvis Presley fan, to the point where he meets Ray Manzarek when they were both studying at the UCLA film school and they decided to form a band. The filmmakers clearly had access to a wealth of footage and images, both of The Doors and of culture and events in the 60's and 70's. What surprised me is that they didn't use these images to tell the story, but merely to illustrate the words, to the point that in many cases the words seemed redundant or simplistic. He describes the music as unique and strange and unfamiliar, rather than showing it to be. In a discussion of the infamous concert that led to Morrison's indictment for indecent exposure, the film shows footage of his walking through the crowd and chatting with the audience casually before going on stage, and the narrator explains (roughly): "Before the concert, he walks through the crowd, showing no fear ... it is difficult to tell if he is giving something to the crowds or if he needs them, drawing emotional strength from their adulation."
About halfway through the film I began to wonder who was its intended audience - given the ability of the narrator to sap the life out of the mystery of Jim Morrison and the band precisely by explaining that and how their music and message were strange and unique, I wondered if the aim might be simply to clarify to those who never "got it", that The Doors were an important band, and that their meteoric rise and downfall was something of a microcosm of the social changes around them. The film is not quite a puff piece, and I appreciated that it worked hard to show that Jim Morrison had flaws and that he owed a good deal of his success to the ability of the rest of the band to support him. One thing I did learn from the film was that the characteristic meandering style of some of the band's longer songs (like "LA Woman" and "The End") really developed from the band's need to fill the empty spaces when Morrison was too drunk to keep going, and to build up musical momentum in a way that would excite him and get him back on track.
In many ways this review may seem harsh - if the film had a different subject that could best be elaborated by a historical narration, then the approach of this film might be perfectly legitimate. But to explain (repeatedly) that the strange really was strange, to point out that the revolutionary really was revolutionary, is to presume that the material has lost its life, and can no longer convey its own power. The film ends on a joke, of sorts, with the narrator pointing out that (unlike many of their contemporary bands) none of The Doors' songs ever became a car commercial: unlike many of their contemporaries, I guess, The Doors never sold out... But when they've been packaged like this, with their allure and their ups and downs explained so neatly, does it really matter whether they sold themselves out?