I was born in 1955, so my formative years were spent listening to some of the greatest pop/rock music ever composed. During the period from the mid to late 1960s, I had three favorite bands: The Beatles (who didn’t love them?), The Beach Boys and their all-American sound and as a contrast to that, The Doors. So when I heard there was a new documentary in theaters about The Doors, I hurried to see it. Unfortuntely the film, entitled When You're Strange, wasn’t meant for me.
What I mean by that is that anyone who grew up with this music knows that The Doors were popular for two reasons: their music and the antics of lead singer Jim Morrison, the self-proclaimed Lizard King. Unfortunately director Tom DiCillo emphasizes Morrison’s behavior in this film at the expense of the music.
Now it’s understandable that DiCillo would do this as Morrison was a lightning rod who represented the excesses of late ‘60s rock probably as well as any one individual could. Much is made of a famous concert in Miami where Morrison supposedly exposed his genitals (he didn’t) and was arrested and dragged off the stage as a riot broke out. The vintage film clips here are stirring and are among the best parts of the film.
But no matter how crazy Morrison was, The Doors wouldn’t have achieved the success they did if it wasn’t for the quality of their music. Songs such as “Light My Fire” and “Love Her Madly” are burned into my subconscious and are among my favorite tunes from that time. But while they had pop hits, they also composed some dark, moody songs that moved me even more, tunes such as “Crystal Ship” and “Alabama Song (Whisky Bar).” These last two songs showed the dark side of the group’s musical identity. I’d love to know where some of the ideas for these songs came from.
DiCillo ties all this in with the protest movement of the late ‘60s and has the obligatory clips of Vietnam, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. But for me he goes too far. The Doors weren’t writing anti-war songs and to suggest their music was somehow connected to this is simply wrong. Their music reflected the dark side of life, much of it influenced by drugs. Their music represented a lot more than “down with the establishment” and for DiCillo to push this message lessens the effect of their music.
I would have also liked to see more performances. Why couldn’t we get just one complete performance of a song? Just one? Not only is this music haunting, it’s also something to watch this group at work. To his credit, early in the film DiCillo does explain the unusual sound of The Doors, pointing out that drummer John Densmore had to keep the beat as there was no bass player. This is the kind of information I was looking for in this film, but sadly this lacks much detail about the band.
Ultimately, When You’re Strange becomes a greatest hits film clip presentation of Jim Morrison’s life. That’s pretty interesting on its own, so the film is certainly watchable, but unfortunately it’s a bit like Chinese food – 15 minutes after it’s finished, you want more. If you’re younger than 50 and only know The Doors from a few of their songs, you’ll probably like this film a lot more than I did. But if you’re my age and thought the band was one of the most important of its era, you’ll more than likely be disappointed.
P.S. Want to see a great musical documentary? Try Robert Weber’s 1988 film, Let’s Get Lost, about the great jazz musician Chet Baker. That film is ethereal and takes you places – it’s also got several complete performances of Baker, so we see and hear his greatness. I wish DiCillo had somehow channeled some of that same energy in his film