After emerging from a wrecked vehicle, Jim Morrison is wandering along the desert highway trying to thumb a lift when a car stops and he climbs in. But he is also driving the car, and as he speeds down the road the radio is playing, with the newsreader announcing his death at the age of twenty-seven over the airwaves. This is a documentary which sets out to explore the band Morrison belonged to, The Doors, and not only relate the history of their journey, but place the group in context: the context of the decade they came to prominence in, and what their impact on the popular culture had been.
Director Tom DiCillo was best known for his quirky dramas and comedies before his Doors documentary was released, and afterwards... he was still known for his quirky comedies and dramas, as there were quite a few fans of this musical phenomenon who were less than impressed with what he did with all that precious footage that he had been given. It's hard to tell if When You're Strange was intended for the newcomer to the music or for the seasoned aficionado, but if there's one thing that came across it was that The Doors might as well have been called Jim Morrison and the Jim Morrison Band.
Sure, there's a few sops thrown to the other members, so we hear about John Densmore walking out of a recording session in a state of mental exhaustion, or Ray Manzarek playing on as the stage collapsed during the infamous Miami show, but the focus is on Jim throughout, as if he were not simply the key to their success, but the reason behind their downfall as well. Fair enough, when people think of The Doors the first thing that springs to mind will be Mr Mojo Rising himself, gyrating in his leather trousers while singing and howling into the microphone, but if you were hoping for something more inclusive of the other personalities in the band then you may well be disappointed.
DiCillo assembled this in a scrapbook fashion, moving from clip to clip with Johnny Depp's narration relied on to keep the story going. Of the actual music of the band, it's rare to hear one of their songs played all the way through here, as we get the most recognisable bits of their most recognisable tunes (except Hello I Love You for some reason), but mainly they're there to sustain a flow of sound and vision, meaning you could very well let this all drift before your eyes and ears without it making much of an impression. There were no contemporary interviews, although Depp paraphrases the odd comment from the chief players, but a wealth of footage from the time did at least convey a spirit of the age, of which The Doors were a major musical part.
Alas, Morrison in clip form comes across as your clichéd dunderheaded lead singer, and we never get much of a sense of the man other than that he was an addict, and his alcoholism and drug abuse were what brought about his untimely demise while jeopardising the careers of his bandmates. A theme of Morrison throwing away all his potential, not to mention all his achievements, all for the sake of his next drink or fix is one which is hard to shake from watching this, leaving DiCillo's attempt to build him up as a true rebel and the encapsulation of the whole counterculture movement of the era on dubious ground. Yes, The Man tried to take him down, but isn't the music the most important thing? The pretentious construction doesn't help much, with scenes from Morrison's lost film HWY mixed with such lines of narration as "the metamorphosis was complete", but you can tell this was sincere, rendering it interesting if not wholly illuminating.