I went to see "When You're Strange" last night, the documentary about the rise and fall of the Doors by director Tom DiCillo. It's an odd film, not so much for content or tone, but just for general purpose. And here's my review. First some background...
The Doors were my first true musical love. Sure, other things pricked my ears as a child, like Prince, The Stone Roses, PSB, G'n'R, and S'Express, but at the time of the release of Oliver Stone's "The Doors" biopic I became obsessed. I guess the timing was right - puberty had just hit, I had developed an interest in 60's culture thanks to the rave scene, I wanted to expand my musical horizons, and no-one else seemed to know who they were. I guess having a sudden access to this treasure trove of music and myth through magazine features, TV spots and the film itself helped. I bought all their albums, two live sets and even An American Prayer (Morrison's solo album of spoken-word/poetry). I had posters on my wall, t-shirts, I scribbled the distinctive logo everywhere I could, I even visited Morrison's grave at the Pere Lachaise cemetary in Paris while on a language exchange.
Of course, it goes without saying that the Doors, and Morrison in particular, are one of the archtypal "adolescent" bands. Get in to them as a teen, give them a few years, and then cringe at the poor quality of some of his supposed "poetry" and attitudes once you have grown up and learned a little. At the tail end of my obsession I discovered a ratty, falling apart copy of Danny Sugerman's book "No One Here Gets Out Alive" in one of my school's classrooms. It's an amazing read, filled as it is with true life tales of Morrison's genuinely reprehensible behaviour, but it leaves a bad taste, particularly about Morrison the man as opposed to the myth. Then of course there's Stone's film - pretty mind blowing when you're thirteen but an absolute crock once you enter your twenties. So, what about "When You're Strange"?
At it's core the film is admirable, using as it does only archive footage from the period with no re-enactments and no extraneous narrative elements imposed, save for Johnny Depp's spare voice over. But the main problem is: what exactly does this film have to offer? And who is it aimed at? There is absolutely no new knowledge to be had here for fans of the band - in fact, there's even less than what I was expecting, with practically no mention of Morrison's legendary libido and the scrapes it got him in (in fact his wife Pamela is mentioned twice in 90 minutes!), and precious little of the mystic side of the man that made him so attractive to the hippie generation and beyond.
Personally, I get the feeling this was only made as a riposte to Stone's Doors movie, as the band themselves very famously and publically hated that 1991 picture. And I guess it may serve that purpose well, it might become the official starting point or beginers guide for anyone interested in getting into the Doors. Unfortunately though that means that it never really transcends its made-for-TV roots (even with the world's highest paid actor doing the voice-over) and even then, VH1 or MTV would insert interviews with some of the key band members/personnel. Large gaps appear in the story, and bizarrely the chronolgy skips back and forth for no reason. One minute the band have released "Touch Me" (December 68), the next it's the "Miami incident" (March 68) - later on the band have just released the "Morrison Hotel" LP (1970), and the next man is walking on the moon. Hunh?!
This film is not completely without merit though. Some of the archive footage is immense, and yes, there is lots of footage here that I had never previously seen on any of the videos I trawled through in the early 90s. Of course, the soundtrack is amazing (reminding the viewer that behind the sometimes embarassing Morrison were three of the best players pop has ever known, who managed to fuse their different styles into an exciting, fresh, and coherent whole), and the live performance footage is stunning, particularly the first time the band play "The End" at the Whiskey-A-Go-Go, and when they play it again as an elongated blues jam at the Isle Of White Festival. Mick Jagger may have been the first "front-man" of the 60's, but Jim Morrison was better, perhaps the best of all time, and the mid Sixites footage reminds the viewer how stunningly beautiful he was in his prime. But even with all this great footage, it just got me thinking how many damn cameras were around this band all of the time? And how much of Morrison's act was simply to play up to those cameras? He was originally a film student, after all.
This film is worth watching if you don't know anything about the band at all (watch this before you watch Oliver Stone's film, and after you have seen that go read "No One Here Gets Out Alive" to see what he left out) but for the hardcore fan there's not much to learn here. Except maybe to have the fires of youth rekindled again - yeah I haven't really listened to the Doors much since I was about 18, but I think I sense a revival coming right back on my stereo...