First look — The Doors doc, When You’re Strange

From this year's Sundance Film Festival in snowy Utah, here's our verdict on The Doors documentary, When You're Strange, from Living In Oblivion director Tom DiCillo.

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From this year’s Sundance Film Festival in snowy Utah, here’s our verdict on The Doors documentary, When You’re Strange, from Living In Oblivion director Tom DiCillo.

It’s perhaps strange that unlike, say, The Beatles or the Stones, The Doors – and Jim Morrison, in particular – have been left relatively alone when it comes to documentary treatments. On film, of course, there’s Oliver Stone’s Doors biopic, and in some ways director Tom DiCillo’s documentary owes some stylistic debt to Stone’s movie, even though the end result is perhaps understandably more restrained.

DiCillo’s greatest achievement here, arguably, is the great care with which he’s assembled a coherent narrative exclusively from archive footage shot between 1966 and 1971. You might find the absence of contemporaneous interviews means there’s no talking heads to guide you through the story. In fact, it works to DiCillo’s advantage, giving the material space to flow naturally. And, perhaps more importantly, it means we’re spared from woolly armchair psychoanalysis of Morrison.

As a framing device, DiCillo uses outtakes from Morrison’s aborted 1969 film project, Highway. When You’re Strange opens with the singer emerging from a crashed car. He starts hitchhiking. Suddenly, he’s driving another car crazily. On the radio, DiCillo overdubs a news broadcast that enables Morrison to hear the coverage of his own death in July 1971. Suddenly, we’re whisked back in time and Morrison and his newfound friend Ray Manzarek are plotting to form a band and, almost by accident, land a residency at the Whiskey A Go Go. The narration here is quite perfunctory, and for a while the film threatens to be simply an aural and visual scrapbook, or a catch-up for those unfamiliar with the band. One wonders, for example, whether we’ll ever hear a song or performance in its entirety, and whether, if we will, it’s going to interrupt the breakneck pace.

Over time, DiCillo lets the pace settle and the footage breathe. What’s most remarkable here is the extraordinary live material, particularly DiCello’s meticulous reconstruction of The Doors’ 1969 concert at the Dinner Key auditorium in Coconut Grove, Miami. Morrison, consumed by alcohol and disillusion, is confronted by a crowd baying for nothing more than their latest hit (“LIGHT MY FIRE! LIGHT MY FIRE! LIGHT MY FIRE!”), and he just flips. But, for once, you see the chaos through Morrison’s eyes: he’s thinking, ‘I’m trying. We’re trying. Why aren’t you?’

The film climaxes as the band’s 1970 performance at the Isle Of Wight festival, where n overweight, bearded Morrison croons through a surprisingly effective rendition of “The End”. DiCillo uses the song as a death knell for the ‘60s – Charlies Manson makes his appearance right on cue – with Morrison fully aware that the optimism that characterised the birth of the California hippie dream no longer exists.

It’s rare that a documentary seems to evolve with its subject, and by the time it ends, When You’re Strange will confound you: how did it all come together? Did DiCillo write the story first and find the clips, or vice-versa? Either way, it’s quite an achievement. But perhaps most of all it might remind you what a great band The Doors were, and, refreshingly, DiCillo keeps a distance from the band’s daily soap opera, refusing to analyse, as many have, Morrison’s personal demons. The last images of the band show holiday footage of a smiling, skinny-dipping Morrison as “The Crystal Ship” plays. “Deliver me from reasons why,” sings Morrison. This movie, like that lyric, is perhaps the closest we’ll ever get to him.



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