I started listening to the The Doors when I was about fourteen, and bought every one of their albums. I have great affection for their music, especially Strange Days, at the same time that I often question how seriously to take it.
At the behest of Rhino Records and producer Dick Wolf, after directing some Law and Order episodes, filmmaker Tom DiCillo–whose idiosyncratic films I like, from Johnny Suede and Living in Oblivion to Box of Moonlight–took three years to fashion the mysterious documentary When You’re Strange: A Film About the Doors. He leans on found footage from concerts, interviews of the period and even a remarkably pristine 1969 35 mm short film (Google video on jump) of Jim Morrison driving in the desert to show us, with help from warm-voiced narrator Johnny Depp, what was going on.
At a screening at Universal’s Hitchcock Theatre the other night, surviving Doors guitarist Robbie Krieger thanked DiCillo for giving him so much credit–clearly, he wrote most of the great songs in The Doors’ oeuvre, including “Light My Fire.” And Morrison is revealed as a great-looking, hard-drinking narcissist who could barely read music; poetry was the one thing he took seriously. Fame went to his head, along with a lot of pot, coke and alcohol. To a degree the movie helps to demystify Morrison, who seems to have had a raging case of Imposter Syndrome. He died in Paris in 1971 at age 27.
DiCillo weaves the Morrison short (Hwy: An American Pastoral) throughout the film, purposely not letting us know what the footage is. “No actors are used in the film!” the director called out as the first images came on screen. The long-haired, bearded guy silently driving a Shelby GT500 sports car looks like Morrison (who met organist Ray Manzarek at UCLA film school) but the soundtrack indicates that he’s driving around after Morrison’s death. It must have been intoxicating to be able to use the footage, and DiCillo doesn’t want to give the game away. But this unanswered riddle thwarts the movie.
Abramorama is releasing the movie–which has thrived on the fest circuit–in eleven cities April 9 before an eventual PBS airing, just as Rhino is reissuing classic studio recordings and rare live performances as well as a soundtrack featuring Depp reading Morrison’s poetry and two vinyl albums, Absolutely Live and Live in New York. Meanwhile, L.A.’s Grammy Museum is debuting the Strange Kozmic Experience, which will explore the innovations, legacies, and impact of doomed artists The Doors, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix.
Here’s the blurry Google video: