When legendary frontman Jim Morrison joined The 27 Club in 1971, it is widely believed that he did so while reading one of the earliest unofficial scripts for what would become Platoon, sent to him by director Oliver Stone. Whether or not Jim would have been given the film’s lead role is uncertain. Regardless, Stone paid tribute to the band with his average biopic The Doors in 1991; a film that, despite a career-best performance by Val Kilmer, eventually degraded into a sloppy and sluggish affair. I had hopes that the more factual documentary When You’re Strange (narrated by Johnny Depp) would prove itself as the definitive piece of The Doors cinema, but it ends up being no more (or less) engaging than Stone’s effort.
Positively, director Tom DiCillo avoids most of the tired clichés used in contemporary documentaries to make them seem overly profound or insightful. Gone are the talking heads (supposed “experts” who like to think they are offering key information when merely spitting throwaway one-liners) and lame re-enactments that generally drag documentaries into farcical, unconvincing territory.
Instead, When You’re Strange is filled with archive footage of the band, ranging from their most replayed moments (such as their performance on The Ed Sullivan Show) to their imminent implosion, when Jim had become the draw card for all the wrong reasons. Such footage is a treat to watch, as it so clearly displays the raw energy of the band both on the stage and in the studio. Just as intriguing are excerpts from HWY: An American Pastoral, an experimental film starring and co-directed by Morrison in ‘69. Unfortunately, this is only sprinkled in as a kind of stinger between scenes, serving a purpose more visual than informative. Perhaps some input from remaining band members regarding their interpretation of HWY: An American Pastoral would have been the right move, because I was left craving more details about it as the credits rolled.
It is equally disheartening, though, that Jim’s home movie provides the only genuinely interesting moments in the movie. As an enthusiast, but not an extreme, I-have-all-their-albums fan, of The Doors, I was still left unsatisfied by the lack of depth in storytelling. For the most part, it appears DiCillo simply glosses over the band’s history, failing to tell me anything I didn’t already know.
When You’re Strange gives an inkling that it is heading in the right direction when it addresses Jim’s ability to “draw some sort of energy from the fans” when shown socializing before a performance. But again, the movie takes the first available opportunity to hop back onto the beaten path when, much like Stone’s biopic, it shifts from The Doors to The Jim Morrison Experience. The film abruptly ends with the frontman’s death, leaving the viewer in no doubt as to whom the star was.
This is a fascinating story to tell, when told right. Here is a band that came to be, either directly or indirectly, intertwined with almost every cultural phenomenon of the late sixties, including the Youth Movement, the Summer of Love and the Vietnam War, all in a very short lifetime. In doing so, they caught the attention of some of the world’s most polarizing figures, from the popular (Mick Jagger, arguably the most recognizable man on the planet at the time) to the underground (Andy Warhol, perennial contender for the title of “weirdest guy ever”). The biggest shame of When You’re Strange is its inability to detail any of these associations intimately, and so what could have been a Masters degree in Doorsology (patent pending) ends up looking like a hollow introductory course instead.