A 'Strange' Look At The Legendary Doors

The Doors

hide captionHere's Looking At You: When You're Strange uses historic and never-before-seen footage to tell the story of The Doors, an iconic rock group made up of classically trained keyboardist Ray Manzarek, Spanish-style guitarist Robby Krieger, jazz drummer John Densmore and singer Jim Morrison.

Rhino Entertainment

When You're Strange: A Film About The Doors

  • Director: Tom DiCillo
  • Genre: Music Documentary
  • Running Time: 85 minutes
Not rated; nudity and profanity

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Doors frontman Jim Morrison often went too far, so it's a relief that When You're Strange: A Film About The Doors doesn't. Tom DiCillo's documentary does use the s-word — that would be "shaman" — but doesn't stumble as far into the mystic as Oliver Stone's tripped-out The Doors did.

The film opens in transcendental/existentialist mode, with clips from HWY, a 1969 road movie starring the Lizard King himself. A onetime UCLA film-school student, Morrison plays both a hitchhiker and the guy who gives him a ride in this short, one of numerous pieces of previously unseen footage used here.

While many of the images are new, the story is familiar. When You're Strange is essential for Doors devotees and a good introduction for newcomers. But everyone outside those categories will likely find the movie — and Johnny Depp's flat reading of DiCillo's banal narration — just another cruise down an oft-traveled highway.

In a career that lasted only 54 months, The Doors produced a remarkable number of mainstream chart hits, while devolving into a controversial and hopelessly unreliable live act. The band's troubles on stage were mostly the result of Morrison's indulgence in drugs and booze, but also something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Jim Morrison

hide captionLove Me Two Times: While director Tom DiCillo does address the band's formation, the documentary is more about Jim Morrison than The Doors — not exactly surprising, considering that Morrison's notorious on-stage antics once led to a conviction for public indecency.

Rhino Entertainment

After an early confrontation with police in New Haven, the group became a cop magnet. The strife culminated in a 1969 Miami show in which Morrison was busted for public indecency. DiCillo provides a flurry of zipped-up photos to suggest that the singer never actually exposed himself, but Morrison was convicted. The case was still on appeal when the 27-year-old died suddenly in a Paris bathtub in 1970.

The movie handles the band's formation quickly, noting the significance of the instrumentalists' non-rock backgrounds: Ray Manzarek was a classically trained keyboardist, Robby Krieger a Spanish-style guitarist and John Densmore a jazz drummer.

The musical analysis is thin, however, and sometimes misleading. Depp's voiceover notes that The Doors didn't have a bassist, without mentioning that it used one for its recordings. Thanks to his major role in songwriting, Krieger is credited repeatedly, but the other two players recede as the band increasingly becomes The Jim Morrison Show.

DiCillo doesn't use any retrospective talking-head interviews: All the footage is from 1965-70, and the commentary is provided entirely by narration or montage. The latter sometimes plays loose with chronology, as when Morrison's 1970 meltdown is conflated with the 1968 slayings of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy and the Manson family's murderous 1969 rampage. (Another minor off-key detail: The film lauds the surviving Doors for not selling their music for TV commercials, but doesn't acknowledge that Densmore is the only holdout.)

Viewers who never checked into the Morrison Hotel may giggle at some of DiCillo's gushing remarks, notably the claim that "you can't burn out if you're not on fire." But The Doors, and especially Morrison, have inspired such rhetoric for 45 years. When You're Strange presents new pictures, taken from the same old angles.

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