Theatrical Releases: ‘When You’re Strange: A Film About the Doors’

“If you remember the 60s then you weren’t there”. This common illustration of the 1960s is not only verified in the documentary When You’re Strange: A Film About the Doors (2009) for those who were unfortunately not at the party, but no doubt sheds some light on those who have forgotten.

Oliver Stone offered a kaleidoscopic fabricated take on the band in question with The Doors (1991), but judging by his outlandish accusations passed off as gospel in JKF (1991), I took his tribute to the ‘Lizard King’ with a large handful of salt. The Doors represent a segment of youth from their era that didn’t quite fit the mould, with bohemian concepts and a sexually liberating credo.

When You’re Strange is written and directed by Tom DiCillo, who was responsible for debuting Brad Pitt in his first leading role in Johnny Suede (1991). Originally, DiCillo narrated the picture, but after its screening at the 2009 Sundance Festival critics complained the narration was monotone and tedious, and so Dillico was shrewdly replaced with the trusting and always mesmerising voice of Johnny Depp. The newly dubbed version was screened at the Los Angeles Film Festival on the 29th June 2009. Depp has described his part in the project as an honour and claims to be “as proud of this as anything I have ever done.”

Morrison emerges as a misunderstood genius; highly intelligent and spiritual. It is LSD and alcohol that earned him the reputation as unprofessional, unpredictable and dangerous or as the band facetiously or anxiously (however you look at it) christens his alter ego ‘Jimbo’, who would threaten to expose himself to his audience or collapse on stage and not get up again. We see a Morrison who has a vulnerable side, one that craves attention but not in an egotistic way instead to determine his own worth in the world. He mingles with his crowd like a rag doll, being pushed and pulled without flinching or desperately seeking security like so many so called “rock stars” today; instead he embraces his audience becoming ‘one’ with them, lapping up every caressing hand and hysterical cry of adulation. His presence is now far more assured than his early performances when he would not face his audience, the documentary taking us through what Depp describes as Jim’s ‘metamorphisis’. Remarkably Jim’s sense of humour appears playful, ironic and astute.

During one performance a chair is thrown at a female fan and the show is called off. Jim sits backstage with the injured party. A photographer claims that Jim had spotted another girl in the audience who went on to bite his lip and grab his crotch, causing the boyfriend to retaliate by throwing a chair. Jim drolly interprets the situation, in a perhaps artificially stimulated calmness “she got hit by a chair, are you sure it was a chair that hit you? Where did they even get a chair from man?” But it is clear that this attitude is an infliction on the band when he shows up late to gigs, rehearsals and recordings, on acid or inaudibly drunk, causing John Densmore in one incident to storm out of the studio after breaking out in a rash due to the tension in the band. Resilient to Jim’s antics, he returns the next day and continues with recording the album.

Due to the band being banned from numerous venues, gigs and TV appearances because of their front man’s intoxicated, temperamental unpredictability there is seemingly little footage of the band. For this reason, When You’re Strange was necessarily padded out with fictional footage of what is meant to be Jim Morrrison on a road trip after his death, entertaining but by no means encouraging the conspiracy theory that he Jim Morrison faked his own death, which I feel could have been left out; it did not seem fitting with the archive footage nor the impartial nature of the documentary.

As Depp says, the selected footage allows one to view the Doors journey through “their eyes”. When You’re Strange reaffirms Jim Morrison as a rock legend, a poet in his own rite and a spiritual and sexual messiah, who opened the doors of perception for his generation and all those to follow.

Gemma James