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‘When You’re Strange’

Reality is stranger than fiction

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Do The Doors still matter in 2010? That’s the unstated question posed to anyone watching “When You’re Strange,” a new documentary that tracks the band’s short and tumultuous career in the 1960s.

“When You’re Strange” arrives some four decades after the death of lead singer and bona fide rock god Jim Morrison at the age of 27. Director Tom DiCillo, working with the full support of the band, seeks to tell The Doors’ story as it was seen at the time, solely using period footage to bring the era to life.

When You're Strange
Rating
Director Tom DiCillo
Run Time 86 minutes
Language English

Doors fans will be pleased to note that DiCillo had full access to a lot of rare and unseen material, including Morrison’s film in progress “HWY,” and the intimate, hanging-with-the-band reels shot by Paul Ferrara, a friend of Morrison’s from UCLA. The only context supplied is some voiceover narration by Doors fan Johnny Depp (whose presence alone may be enough to make The Doors hip again and not just dad’s music).

DiCillo opens his film with a flourish; under a flaming desert sunset, a man crawls out of a wrecked car and we see it’s Jim Morrison. He hitches a ride, and then — flipping through the dial on the AM radio — hears a news report of his own death. The film spirals back in time through a hyperspeed montage of moments from the band’s career, and we’re back in 1965, where the band is just forming in Venice Beach, L.A. It’s an appropriately Doors-ish conceit, this notion of life as a dream and death yet another (although the bong-hit conspiracy set will no doubt see this as further proof that Jim’s death was like, staged, man).

Casual fans will remember The Doors for their hits, pop songs like “Light My Fire” or “Love Her Madly,” but a closer examination of their lyrics — let alone a song like “The End” — shows that The Doors did not make safe music. This, the film makes abundantly clear. Just watch Morrison taunting the cops or inciting his audience (“you’re all f-cking slaves”) as the concert teeters on the brink of pure chaos: This was punk a generation before its time. (Indeed, The Sex Pistols and their notoriously confrontational tour of America — as seen in the doc “D.O.A.” — seem almost tame in comparison.)

Hard though it may be to believe — in an era of Marilyn Manson and Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” video — Morrison was the first rock star to embrace elements of madness, provocation, and dark eroticism as part of his performance. Call it pretentious if you will, but it was certainly groundbreaking, and judging by the intensity of his performances in “When You’re Strange,” it was no mere act.

The stage requires a lot: You either cut a deal with the muse and leave all your psychic loose change in some unexamined corner of your soul while staying focused on the “act,” or you keep it real and raw, and you are going to have to dredge it all up night after night. And when it’s not forthcoming, well maybe the bottle will help, but that’s another deal with the devil, as Morrison learned the hard way.

It’s hard to watch Morrison’s descent into alcoholism, drug abuse, and an early grave without feeling the regret — one shared by his bandmates — that he never pulled himself out of it. But really, could it have been any other way? What did those intense performances take out of him? Could he have reached that same place while sober? Without romanticizing his demise, it still seems — like Ian Curtis and Kurt Cobain as well — that it was the flip side of his gift, his art. As Morrison himself put it, “We’re trying for something that’s already found us.”