When You're Strange

***

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

When You're Strange
"Tom DiCillo proves he has a keen eye for editing. When it comes to narration, however, he falls woefully short."

Vintage footage is an easy sell to audiences. What’s not to love about peering through a celluloid window into the foreign country of the past, to see the fashions – both in dress and mentality – that marked out a bygone age? When that archive material also happens to include one of pop icons of the 20th Century – Jim Morrison, afforded almost mythic status since his untimely death at age 27, in 1971 - it is doubly compelling.

Tom DiCillo (Johnny Suede, Living In Oblivion) proves he has a keen eye for editing as he sifts through what appears to be an exhaustive supply of footage of Morrison and the rest of the band, plus lots of home video segments - including Morrison directing himself in a dreamlike ‘road movie’. When it comes to narration, however, he falls woefully short.

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Providing a narratorial voice is a skilled affair, requiring the right tone of earnestness and authority. DiCillo, whose posturings cover every single second of this documentary not filled by music, isn’t the first to have crashed and burned due to a lack of gravitas – the likes of even Russell Crowe have failed spectacularly (Bra Boys) - but it’s hard to imagine anyone, no matter what their clout, being able to make good listening out of the palpably ponderous script.

While it is, perhaps, admirable (or, possibly, necessary, if none of the band would oblige) to eschew the idea of various talking heads, each presenting their own version of events in The Doors’ history, DiCillo wants to have his cake and eat it – on the one hand suggesting that archival images should be enough for us to take what we need, while on the other, spoon-feeding us with highly editorialised and reductive commentary concerning the ins and outs of the group. He is, in many ways, falling in to exactly the trap that he was, presumably, trying to avoid – attempting to create a myth from the man – when he refers to Morrison as being “like an ancient Shaman”. And when he strays down the route of telling us, in stern fashion, that Jim’s trousers were “designed to accentuate his crotch”, you know you are firmly into ‘way too much information’ territory as you laugh into your popcorn. The problem is, that with no interviews to back up what is said, we're fully reliant on DiCillo's verision of 'the truth'.

There is also a definite sense of shying away from some of the less salubrious aspects of Morrison’s lifestyle. Although a reasonable amount of mention is made of his alcoholism – including some footage of a drunken recording session which would be unthinkable nowadays – there is very little talk of his drug use, which one suspects means that caveats may have been applied by family members in return for the home video segments shown.

This is not to say that When You’re Strange does not hold charms. The footage is fascinating and, admirably, the film does take time to acknowledge and talk about the other band members - Ray Manzarek, Robby Kriger and John Densmore – who so often seem to get unnecessarily sidelined in considerations of the group. While it may be preaching to the choir, at least it is doing so with plenty of fresh material, if not insight.

If you tune out the constant background drone, DiCillo’s skilled editing style will let you soak up some history and draw your own conclusions. Rumour has it that the film was put to bed at the 11th hour before its Sundance premiere, so perhaps there is still time for a return to the cutting room as regards the voice-over. If they do, a higher star rating beckons.

Editor's note: Since this article was written the film has, indeed, been back to the cutting room and now bears a voice-over by Johnny Depp. A review of this version is here

Reviewed on: 03 Feb 2009
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Documentary tracking the rise of The Doors, featuring rare footage of the band and Jim Morrison.
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