In the immortal words of Jim Morrison: “Pretty Cool, Pretty Neat”.
Man, there’s been a lot said about this movie, then there’s the word, and the word is, get “When You’re Strange”.
“When You’re Strange” isn’t a true documentary in the sense of a Ken Burns style of documentary, an intensive, exhaustive look into a subject. “When You’re Strange” starts with scenes of Jim Morrison’s “HWY” and uses the conceit of Morrison hearing the announcement of his own death in Paris. The movie tells The Doors’ story from UCLA and touches quickly on each member’s childhood and moves chronologically through The Doors career. This is The Doors through The Doors’ own lens. All the footage derives from “HWY” and the concert film, “Feast of Friends”, that The Doors filmed in 1968. We also see footage from Ray Manzarek’s student films, ’60s period footage for context, and there‘s some previously unseen footage, except for maybe the hardcore collectors.
For years Doors fans have been asking when, where, and if Jim Morrison’s “HWY” and “Feast of Friends” will be released. Although this isn’t the stand alone films, and a lot of the footage has been used before, Ray Manzarek used “Feast of Friends” footage for MTV videos in the ’80s and the “Soft Parade” video in ’91. “HWY” has been bootlegged for years and only the fortunate few have seen it (although YouTube expanded this base). This is the movie Doors fans have been asking for. Writer/Director Tom DiCillo (“Johnny Suede”, “Delirious“) intricately weaves together “HWY” and “Feast of Friends” and provides a narrative the footage has lacked before. Perhaps if Jim Morrison had lived, combining the two might have been a solution he might have chosen. DiCillo also makes choices that are a little riskier in presentation. As an example, he doesn’t use the songs and the footage as obviously as before. Usually, “Riders On The Storm” is presented with images of thunderclouds and storms, but DiCillo chooses images of Vietnamese jungles flowering in explosion.
The movie looks great! The footage has been restored and it looks as good as it did, if not better than when it was shot 40 years ago. Not only has the film been restored, so has the sound. It seems like the soundtrack has also been cleaned up and things have been pulled from the background, you hear things that before were only muttered or obscured by crowd noises. The complete effect of the film is a much more immediate, impressionistic, visceral view of The Doors than before.
Narration for “When You’re Strange” is provided by Johnny Depp, and although it is a little basic and simplistic and sometimes a little intrusive it has to be: there isn’t enough expository footage to move the narrative along without adding the intrusion of contemporary or even period interviews. Depp’s narration is subtle and understated, and Depp’s phrasing while not overly dramatic has the timing of the poetic.
A lot of fans and The Doors themselves have been critical of Oliver Stone’s 1991 movie “The Doors” (although I think Stone was using the band as an archetype for the times, in a subconscious trilogy of the ’60s). The Doors have said they like this movie and I think the fans are going to like it too, and may consider it the definitive version/vision of the band. A good 3.5 stars movie. You’re going to dig this one.
Bonus Features: Filmed interviews of Jim Morrison’s family were made prior and were going to be used in the movie before DiCillo came onboard and employed a different narrative tack. Doors manager Jeff Jampol has written on The Doors message board that that footage will be included in the bonus features of the DVD/Blu-Ray when they’re released. When more information is available I’ll edit this part of the review to reflect that information.
Originally published May 13, 2010, and appears in “The Doors Examined”.