The Doors and Film: When You’re Strange

When You're Strange: The Doors on film

Film has long been an artform of choice for rock ‘n’ roll, becoming an extension of the music itself. Many of us grew up with the videos of MTV, songs turned into parades of images. Gary Numan took us for a ride in “Cars,” Duran Duran lived out their rock ‘n’ roll fantasies in exotic locations with beautiful women, and the spectacle of Michael Jackson‘s “Thriller” blurred film and music further still.

In the ’70s, bands released concert documentaries like Pink Floyd’s “Live at Pompeii” or Led Zeppelin’s “The Song Remains The Same.” Rather than clips of a band performing a song or two, these were full-length films that were seen mostly at midnight movies. In the wake of Altamont, The Rolling Stones released “Gimme Shelter,” which they’d intended to be a documentary of their 1969 North American tour concluding with an all-day festival that celebrated peace and love.

In the ’60s, film was a promotional technology for delivering bands to their audience. For instance, Elektra Records, The Doors’ label, produced a film for “Break On Through” that was supposed to be used for local music/dance shows when the band was otherwise engaged.

The Doors, of course, were pioneers of the imagery and theatrics that later performers would adopt. Both Ray Manzarek and Jim Morrison were graduates of UCLA’s film program, and film had a great deal of resonance for them. In early 1968, with the success of “Light My Fire” and their first two albums under their belt, they began combining music and video in earnest.

The Doors themselves produced an early music video for the song “The Unknown Soldier,” which created a controversy at the time because of Morrison biting down on a blood pellet and spitting the “blood” out of his mouth.

During their European tour in 1968 the band was the subject of the BBC’s documentary “The Doors Are Open,” in which the BBC added their own political bent to The Doors.

In spring and summer of 1968, The Doors also filmed “Feast of Friends,” a concert piece that really didn’t come together for the band. Consequently, “Feast” was shown at only a few film festivals before being shelved. (It was finally remastered and released on DVD in 2014.) Morrison himself produced a short film, “HWY,” a screenplay of his own that he shot with film school friends Frank Lisciandro and Paul Ferrara. These last two projects produced most of our lasting images and videos of The Doors, and in the ’80s, Manzarek produced videos of Doors songs using “Feast of Friends” as the source material.

After Oliver Stone released “The Doors” in 1991, the surviving Doors worked to rectify what they felt was a sensationalized portrayal of Morrison, the era, and themselves. Manzarek himself produced a post-Stone video called “The Soft Parade” which mixes Doors music with their archived material. Into this mix came Tom DiCillo to direct “When You’re Strange,” a documentary that tells The Doors’ story from their perspective.

“When You’re Strange” uses material shot for “Feast of Friends” and Morrison’s “HWY,” and DiCillo cleaned up the old footage, making it crisp and immediate. The film itself is dynamically edited and features narration by Johnny Depp. “When You’re Strange” spent the summer of 2009 touring the festivals starting with Sundance, where it was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize. It was also well received at the Berlin Film Festival.

By 2010, The Doors and DiCillo had secured a distributor in North America — they’d already secured distribution in Europe — and the film saw release both theatrically and on DVD. A soundtrack is also available.

As dual-layer DVDs and Blu-Ray discs have achieved widespread adoption, The Doors have released expanded compilations and remasters like “The Doors Collection” and “R-Evolution.” If you want The Doors, go to the source.

Originally published September 1, 2009.

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