When You’re Strange: a Film About the Doors

That Tom DiCillo’s 85-minute documentary on Jim Morrison and the Doors won “Best Long-Form Music Video” at the 53rd Grammys should signal its intent to visually bewitch rather than intellectually satisfy. The film is composed primarily of restored and remastered segments of HWY: An American Pastoral,* a 50-minute experiment in direct cinema Morrison made with a group of friends in 1969. The way DiCillo reconstitutes it, the portions of the film that feature Morrison driving down a highway have him hearing his own death being reported and mourned by Jim Ladd on KLOS. (Whether HWY was totally restored during the making of this film is unknown; it would certainly have been an amazing special feature on the DVD.)

A fascinating conceit, but the film fails to do much with it—DiCillo instead prefers to fall back on traditional documentary tactics, using (admittedly nicely restored) unreleased 16mm archival footage and photographs to illustrate a pedestrian re-telling of Morrison’s ill-fated life. We see the band rehearsing in the studio, we see Morisson come in drunk every day, and we see him arrested on stage in Connecticut for lewd behaviour—but there’s no depth to any of it, no authority, no first-hand accounts of this “spectacle of self-destruction.”

If Johnny Depp’s monotonous delivery—a re-do, according to Wikipedia, because the initial version (which must’ve been truly horrendous) attracted so many complaints—doesn’t send you to sleep almost instantly, the script he has to read might. It’s plagued with hilariously bad lines that could be taken verbatim from some kid’s high-school project, lines like “A massive cultural earthquake is splitting the country wide open—and out of the crack steps a band called The Doors,” and “If the band has a surreal fairground air, it is Morrison who is the trapeze artist,” and “You can’t burn out if you’re not on fire.” This short documentary definitely presents a better image of Morrison than Oliver Stone’s unwatchable 1991 biopic, but that’s not exactly hard.

When You’re Strange is now out on DVD through Madman.

Special features include the film’s trailer and a short interview with Morrison’s sister and (more importantly) father, discussing his son for what is apparently “the first time ever.”

*Watch an unrestored version of HWY: An American Pastoral on Google Video.