When You're Strange

When You're Strange

****

Reviewed by: Daniel Hooper

A man wakes up in a car wreck alongside the Route 66. Stepping out of totalled vehicle, the man’s long luxurious hair and scraggly beard feel at one in the hazy desert setting. The man heads roadside, trying to hitch a lift somewhere, anywhere.

A jet black Ford Shelby GT500 pulls over. On the long open highway in the middle of nowhere and the centre of the universe, the man takes the wheel and begins his journey into the wide open beyond, as the light of day turns dusk red. A radio plays in the background of the journey, and the LA DJ Jim Ladd announces to the world “The lead singer of The Doors, Jim Morrison, has died in a Paris bathtub - he was 27 years old.” The man who woke up in the desert is Jim Morrison.

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Or so it goes in Tom DiCillo’s When You’re Strange, the latest cinematic depiction of The Doors oft told story, and the aforementioned framing device for the documentary is made from footage of Paul Ferrara’s (the cinematographer of When You’re Strange) earlier unreleased film, HWY: An American Pastoral, starring Jim Morrison. As expected of music documentary, the film ticks all the boxes with the headlines in the bands story covered – the formation of The Doors at UCLA, Morrison’s conviction for indecent exposure, television appearances, live shows, and Morrison’s tragic young death in 1971.

Paul Ferrara, though, was a photographer by trade and a part of The Doors clique, credited with shooting many of the band's iconic images and while also shooting a huge amount of behind the scenes footage of the band. That most of this hasn’t previously been released is a minor miracle given The Doors notoriety, and makes for a surprisingly personal experience with a band whose original line up were split almost 40 years ago by a tragic rock and roll death.

As with most tellings of The Doors story, the focus of the tale is on the enigmatic yet charismatic front man, a man described as “both innocent and profane” whose actions seem “brilliant or brilliantly calculated to effect.” Morrison’s portrayal is balanced between the theatrical poet, whose lyrics and performances have come to define an era, and the inebriated monster, known to Manzarek as ‘Jimbo’, who gave the band their troublemaker reputation and disrupted their recording sessions. The two sides of Morrison are well documented, and here are shown complete with candid footage, but it is when DiCillo delves a little deeper into his subject - Morrison’s troubled family life and his love affair with Pamela Coulson – that we get a true picture of the real Jim Morrison.

DiCillo makes efforts to the put them into the context of the time, a turbulent period of assassinations, war, and rebellious youth. Alluding to JFK, “The Sixties began with a shot,” begins Johnny Depp, replacing DiCillo as the narrator and seemingly in aquest to be the honorary spokesman for the counterculture Sixties, given his previous work on the Hunter S Thompson documentary Gonzo. Though the stories are now all-too-familiar, but DiCillo’s use of archive footage feels fresh, peppering the familiar Sixties protest and free love material with juxtaposing images of the conservative outcries, including some frankly hilarious footage of so-called ‘decency rallies’, not dissimilar in effect to the trite scenes made by this era’s Tea Party movement.

The sheer wealth of previously unseen and live footage makes this essential viewing for fans, but for anyone else the depth of When You’re Strange can sometimes be frustratingly limited to the skin-deep veneer, as the narration can be a little on-the-nose at points and lacking analysis. Nonetheless, DiCillo’s achievement cannot be underestimated, as he seamlessly balances the scenes that made the band infamous, with the intimate moments and the atmosphere of an era, all in all making When You’re Strange the definitive cinematic account of The Doors.

Reviewed on: 06 Sep 2010
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Documentary tracking the rise of The Doors, featuring rare footage of the band and Jim Morrison.
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