Unlike the band’s own series of understandably self-serving concert videos over the years or, on entirely the other hand, Oliver Stone‘s utterly cataclysmic 1991 biopic The Doors, Tom DiCillo‘s When You’re Strange: A Film About The Doors (freshly available on DVD and Blu-ray from Eagle Rock Entertainment) perhaps comes closest to finally presenting, as no less an authority as Ray Manzarek has long promised, “the true story of The Doors.”
It does so by wisely keeping 21st-century interference to a bare minimum, concentrating instead on a wealth of live and studio footage from throughout the band’s surprisingly brief career intriguingly intercut with — and this is the film’s real coup, to my eyes — never-before-seen segments from Jim Morrison‘s barely released 1969 short subject HWY: An American Pastoral.
Without ever getting overtly ham-fisted a la the above-mentioned Stone, DiCillo (along with Johnny Depp‘s narration) weaves the HWY footage of Morrison speeding across the California desert to actually drive When You’re Strange forward, onward and upward from the band’s infant gigs on L.A.’s Sunset Strip through the recording of their landmark debut album in 1966 and subsequent stardom.
It’s interesting, not to mention important, to realize and understand just how big a pop star Morrison was at this time: He may have been playing it so cool by singing the dreaded “higher” word when The Doors performed “Light My Fire” on The Ed Sullivan Show, but at the same time, this was a man only too happy to appear bare-chested and love-bead-adorned alongside Davy Jones and Mark Lindsay across the pages of 16 magazine.
When You’re Strange similarly pulls few punches in charting the band’s just-as-speedy fall from those poppiest of heights, mainly but not fully on account of Jimbo’s descent into the depths of alcoholic fear and self-loathing. It was indeed, and still remains, quite disheartening to watch The Doors’ slinky frontman decline from the leather-clad Lizard King of every bad girl’s Summer of Love dreams to the bearded, bloated ragamuffin who hauled sheep onstage in 1969, only to then berate his audience with cries of “You’re all a bunch of … idiots!” Oh, Morrison.
Such performance-art footage from the band’s 1968 European tour, and then a remarkable sequence from the “Wild Child” recording session itself, show The Doors were without a single doubt a four-piece band, oh so much greater than the sum of its equal parts, with each man contributing his own special brilliance to the creation. There wasn’t ever a single weak musical link to this band, its writing, arranging and (usually) its performing skills, and When You’re Strange never once lets the viewer get distracted from this critically important fact, despite the carnival atmosphere that never seemed to cease swirling around the entire proceedings.
Finally, we also see how the band fully rebounded with its final two albums, Morrison Hotel and L.A. Woman (again, When You’re Strange presents fabulous footage from the latter’s recording sessions; apparently, the last existing footage of the band as a whole).
But then, most inconveniently, Morrison moved to Paris, and rumor has it actually died there very early on the morning of July 3, 1971.
Now he may indeed remain “hot, sexy and dead,” as Rolling Stone declared a decade later, kicking off the Doors resurrection that each surviving band member continues to propagate most efficiently to this day. Yet DiCillo has bravely succeeded, where few have ever even attempted to before, in stripping away the excess, puncturing the mythology, and — what a concept! — letting
The Doors’ music do the talking.
— Musician/writer Gary Pig Gold is the co-founder of the To M’Lou Music label.