Opinions on the Doors generally fall into two camps: Some people think the ’60s band from L.A. was pretentious, and that lead singer Jim Morrison was probably a massive tool. Other people think the band was pretentious and that lead singer Jim Morrison was probably a massive tool, but still love them anyway.
Filmmaker Tom DiCillo (“Living in Oblivion,” “Delirious”) clearly falls in the latter camp. His documentary on the Doors, “When You’re Strange,” is firmly in the band’s corner and serves somewhat as a corrective to Oliver Stone’s overblown biopic. But he does such a good job exploring the band, and illustrating what made them so unique, that he might just end up opening the minds of a few detractors.
“Strange” opens with some pristine footage of a bearded, Morrison-looking character driving down the desert highway. I assumed it was re-enactment footage, but it was actual lost footage shot of Morrison that has never seen the light of day until now. Such was the amazing access DiCillo had to a treasure trove of largely unreleased Doors audio and video footage while making the film, and it allowed him to dig deeply into the band’s legacy.
Aside from the access, the other main thing you notice about “When You’re Strange” is that there are no on-camera interviews. Instead, DiCillo wrote extensive narration (read by Johnny Depp) to tell the story of the Doors.
To be honest, it’s a little off-putting not to hear what the three surviving members of the Doors actually think about the band’s rise and fall, about Morrison’s brilliance, his self-destructive urges, and his untimely death in a Paris hotel in 1970. And DiCillo’s narration does veer at times toward the sort of overbaked prose you rarely see outside of a high school CD review. (Only Depp — or maybe Morrison himself — could possibly sell a line like “You can’t burn out if you’re not on fire.”)
But DiCillo is also very insightful about what made the Doors’ music so odd and special. You had Morrison’s wild-man shaman vocals, of course, but who would think to match them against the weird carnival music of Ray Manzarek’s organ? Add in the heavy jazz influences that guitarist Robby Krieger and drummer John Densmore brought into the mix, and DiCillo makes a case that the Doors endure because of the music, and not just because Morrison had a face so suitable for back-of-your-dorm-room-door posters.
In the end, “When You’re Strange” sent me away with a greater appreciation for the Doors, and sent me back to listen to “L.A. Woman” a few more times.