Composed almost entirely of stock footage from 1966-‘71, “When You’re Strange” is a rock documentary narrated by Johnny Depp on the career of seminal blues-psychedelic band The Doors.
On a stylistic level, the film succeeds admirably. The grainy footage gives the audience a sense of what the band must have really looked and sounded like, both onstage and in-studio. The concert scenes in particular look incredible, effectively capturing the intensity of The Doors’ live shows. The songs all sound excellent, as well. Feel free to crank the volume to eleven — this is definitely a film with which you can show off your brand-new home theater system.
Much attention is given to the band members’ individual skills and how their diverse backgrounds (classical, jazz, flamenco) contributed to creating such a distinctive sound. Although it’s sometimes forgotten, The Doors were at their best when they worked democratically, with each part contributing equally. Still, the film largely focuses on lead singer Jim Morrison: his education, persona, stage antics, and naturally, massive drug consumption. From his early acid trips to his late alcohol binges, Morrison seems to have been under the influence of something for the majority of his life.
According to Doors guitarist Robby Krieger, this characterization of Morrison as a druggie wunderkind is accurate — and herein lies the film’s central problem: the viewer is meant to reconcile the image of Morrison as some sort of counterculture “genius” (his great intelligence attested because he reads William Blake and writes poetry) with the fact that he was a complete junkie, constantly falling over during shows, slurring his words, forgetting his lines, and sometimes just not showing up.
The film’s director, Tom DiCillo, is clearly enamored by Morrison’s aura, but for those of us who didn’t live through the ‘60s, Morrison appears mostly pathetic — a talented entertainer destroyed by overindulgence. Whatever DiCillo’s attempts to glorify the era, the truth shines through the raw footage.
“When You’re Strange” is particularly enlightening when one realizes that that the cult of personality surrounding Morrison persists, especially in modern political discourse. Candidates are often praised for their charisma and charm while their actual positions on policies, much like Morrison’s great-sounding but stodgy lyrics, are overlooked. Sixties pop music icons galvanized the youth with larger-than life personalities, providing them with a channel through which to rebel against their parents’ values. But the rockers’ call to revolt was ultimately vacuous, never really standing for anything concrete beyond slogans — a trend that persists in today’s political realm.
In that sense, Morrison may be the best representative of his generation, singing nonsense like “Mr. Mojo Rising” as if repetition would confer meaning upon it. Of course, the crowds didn’t actually care about meaning; the hypnotic music and crazed antics of their drugged-up hero were all they really wanted. The experience of watching The Doors perform in “When You’re Strange” is no different. Just tune out the politics and enjoy the show.