When You’re Strange – A Film about The Doors

January 01, 1970

(Eagle Rock; 96 minutes)




Familiar to many, the saga of Jim Morrison and The Doors parallels
the Icarus myth neatly enough for any ancient dramatist. Is anyone still anxious
to replay its more depressing aspects? Hey, millions must crave footage of skyscrapers
crumbling and California shredding into the ocean, or Hollywood wouldn’t keep upchucking
them (leaving aside propagandist theories). And apparently there are people who
can watch Unexplained Mysteries or
tune into Art Bell without laughing until tears mar their shirt collars.


During some of the segments, the Tom DiCillo-directed When You’re Strange mirrors Unexplained
‘ cheesiness. And jarring imagery of Vietnam, MLK, RFK, and
Charles Manson underscores the Doors’ role as Greek chorus and participant(s)
in the ‘60s’ chaotic trajectory. Viewers already familiar with the band may
feel the question’s over-begged. On the other hand, despite Morrison’s glances
at the camera, he dove into the fray more whole-heartedly, with less concern
for his well-being, than just about anyone; bringing in aspects of gospel
ecstasy he may have gleaned from Elvis worship and foreshadowing mosh pit
abandon. DiCillo apparently felt a heavy hand best matched Jim’s rise and fall.


In a gentler world, a biopic might cobble Jim’s scribbling
and filmmaking from an earlier age. For one thing, given his father’s
disapprobation, and his own insecurities about singing, when – and how – did he
first let out a roar? But Morrison’s muses sang with less engaging brilliance than
those of, say, John Lennon. His most consistent, best-realized output sprang
from collaboration with Ray Manzarek, Robby Krieger, and John Densmore. For the
creatively inquisitive, the egalitarianism the Doors maintained until
Morrison’s addled ego muddied the idyll is one of When You’re Strange‘s big draws and inspirations.


The film reveals an abundance of performance footage, along
with previously private archival film of the band. There’s even an intriguing
glimpse at one of Morrison’s film school efforts, which looks to have been
influenced by Un Chien Andalou.


Sitting through the whole spectacle reveals the dedication,
and occasional prophecy, at the core of the carnival barker.  It shows the strangely inevitable similarity
of his fate with that of rebellious victims like Lenny Bruce. It makes you
wonder if Patti Smith, Lux Interior, and Kurt Cobain could have channeled such
free fire without his example (“You’re all a bunch of fuckin’ idiots! You’re
all a bunch of slaves!” screams Morrison in ’69 at a frustrated Miami crowd,
before all hell breaks loose).  “Smell(s) like teen spirit,” anyone?

The roar falls to a near-whisper for conversations with Morrison’s
father and sister. These indicate the poet and probable alcoholic’s isolation
within his family, and the gulf between himself and his father. The concern of
Morrison’s insightful sister, along with the expressions on Admiral Morrison’s
face, penetrate more deeply than the most  strident footage. Even snaps of young Jim — that
could pass for a teenaged Mark Wahlberg — aren’t enough to make me crack wise.


Special Features: Theatrical Trailer, “Conversations With…”


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