When You're Strange: A Film
About The Doors
9 p.m. Wednesday
WFYI (Channel 20)
Hindsight isn't always 20/20. In Tom DiCillo's documentary When You're Strange: A Film About The Doors, it's sometimes even sharper than that. But occasionally it's blurry and, once in a while, totally blind.
Using only footage from that time – portions of which were previously unseen – and Johnny Depp's somber narration, DiCillo's documentary tracks the band's history from its formation in 1965 to singer Jim Morrison's death on July 3, 1971.
That the filmmaker is totally in love with The Doors, particularly Morrison, is never in question. He sees the group as the embodiment of the 1960s, for better and worse, and ties its rise and fall to the cultural advances (civil rights) and horrors (assassinations) of those years. He even intersperses bits of HWY, an experimental 1969 film of Morrison driving around the country, and adds an audio track in which the singer turns on the car radio to hear the news of his own death.
DiCillo's aim is to capture that moment in time, and he does so with relatively little interview footage and no post-Doors commentary from the three still-living band members. The film would have benefited from that.
When You're Strange is at its best when DiCillo delves deeply into the
music, and happily he does that often. He explains the recording process of the
band's first album, which was captured in five days on a four-track tape machine.
He also shows the label from that first LP – which featured an
astonishing run of songs: "Break On Through," "Soul Kitchen," "The Crystal
Ship," "Twentieth Century Fox," "Alabama Song (Whisky Bar)," "Light My Fire"
– though only to note that the band members shared songwriting credits.
He deservedly credits guitarist Robby Krieger for writing much of the band's music, and notes what each of the musicians brought to the music in ability and style. Large blocks of the film are devoted to studio footage – the recording session for "Wild Child" is particularly thrilling – and live performances, which are equally exciting.
And while the film is short on perspective, there's one clip featuring drummer John Densmore that sums up The Doors' music about as well as anyone could: "Everybody's always talking about rock and roll and jazz finally blending, and I don't think that can really happen," he said. "But if it's supposed to, I think we're it."
That's a side of The Doors we rarely hear about.
Like everything connected
with The Doors, When You're Strange
focuses on Morrison. Nearly 40 years later, his antics have grown tiresome.
When Depp intones that "everything he does seems either brilliant or
brilliantly calculated for effect," he couldn't be more right. But DiCillo's
script offers no conjecture about which is which. A little illumination from
the band members would have helped – or at least been a distraction from
hearing the stories of Morrison's drug use and loutish behavior yet again.
DiCillo leaves holes elsewhere too. He notes that The Doors "passed on Woodstock" but never explains why, and in one magnificent scene shows Morrison casually chatting up fans who came to see The Doors at a Long Island, N.Y., venue. It's a moment that's surreal in its ordinariness. Depp, the narrator, wonders whether the singer is mingling, or if he needs their attention to survive. As a viewer, you look to documentary makers to provide clarity, not to leave things cloudy.