July 6th, 2010
While I had meant to go see the new Doors documentary When You’re Strange at the theatre when it was showing here in Madison, I never did. After watching it on DVD, I am almost thankful that I didn’t waste my money.
The film boasts that it features previously unseen footage and that’s all well and good but to what end? Firstly I’ll note that it’s really about Jim Morrison. The rest of the band are shown but are essentially relegated to the role of sidemen in the Jim Morrison Show. I found it odd that, although the film explicitly states that the band formed in the summer of 1965, Johnny Depp, who acts as narrator, tells us that the band existed for only 54 months. Considering that A) Morrison died in July 1971 and B) the rest of the band carried on as The Doors releasing two albums (Other Voices and Full Circle), you can’t really claim that the group was around for only 4 ½ years regardless of when you want to say that it folded. Tellingly, there is absolutely no mention of the albums or tours after Morrison’s death.
Honestly, When You’re Strange is the cinematic equivalent of going to a friend or family member’s house and being subjected to photo after photo of their kids. “Here’s Jim Morrison at a hotel drinking. Here he is backstage with a groupie. And here he is onstage with a funny look on his face.” I personally feel that, if you say your film is about The Doors, then it should give more than two seconds to the band members beyond Jim Morrison and should also discuss the band’s existence after he died. But very few people have any interest in The Doors outside of Jim Morrison so I understand the tack taken here. But even using this standard the film is lacking.
We learn precious little about Morrison’s childhood. The rock history piety here is that he rebelled against his father who was an admiral in the Navy. Is this true? He eventually went to film school and we even get to see a few clips from his student film. Why so little? What was it about? How does it relate to his later work? And how about a little more on his girlfriend Pamela Courson. We hear that she wants him to leave the band to concentrate on his poetry but nothing else. It would have been nice to learn more about her influence on him whether it be artistic, behavioral, or whatever. The film depicts Morrison as wanted to concentrate on his poetry. Indeed, this was one major reason he moved to France. So why do we get so little of it? There is almost nothing to give the audience a sense of where he began and how he progressed as an artist.
Stylistically, When You’re Strange is notable for having no talking head interviews. There are snippets of interviews from the time but that’s it. While I would argue that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, here it works against the film. Depp is supposed to be our anchor. His narration is supposed to orientate us in time but the film jumps around. I recall one scene where The Soft Parade is being discussed yet “Peace Frog” from the following year’s Morrison Hotel plays. Depp’s omniscience is further questioned by the overly simplistic way it constructs the late 1960s and by the sheer hagiography. Regarding the former, we are given a simple dichotomy: there’s the youth movement of those under 30 and everyone else is establishment. And Jim Morrison is portrayed as the singular icon of the young and their rebellion. The Doors were but one band appealing to a youth movement to which not everyone under 30 belonged. Not everyone was a hippie and hippies listened to more than The Doors.
There is also staged footage interspersed throughout the movie. At one point, Morrison is driving along in a car when he comes upon an accident and a dog lies in the middle of the road dying. I presume this is a reference to a car accident that occurred when he was a boy. As I’ve always read, he said that his family drove by a car wreck which killed several American Indians and that he claimed the spirit of one of them entered his body. Or some such thing. The problem is that this scene makes absolutely no sense and adds nothing if you don’t already know Morrison’s story. Furthermore, I fail to see how any of the staged footage adds anything to the narrative at all. Why include it and leave out so much footage of Morrison in his own words?
The concert footage, what there was of it anyway, was a real treat. There was even some of The Door’s Miami show during which Morrison ranted away and was finally arrested after supposedly whipping out his member. However, none of this lost footage (some of which, I highly suspect, has been available unofficially) makes up for the film’s many failings. Ray Manzerek, John Densmore, and Robby Krieger really get the shaft here. You can have the emphasis firmly on Morrison and yet do a lot more to give these guys their due. For instance, how did their songwriting skills and musical abilities grow as time went on? We learn that Krieger came from a flamenco background and it would have been nice to have had someone point out particular songs which show this influence instead of being expected to be wowed when Depp trumpets the guitarist’s abstention from using a pick. Too much of the movie is like this. Depp says something and we audience members are expected to genuflect before someone’s genius.
A couple last gripes. First is about the infamous Miami show. So as not to repeat the film’s mistakes, I’ll note that it took place on1 March 1969. Morrison was arrested after the show for his profanity-laced rants and for supposedly flashing his dick at the audience, although no proof that he did so has emerged. Depp tells us that the band only managed to get part way through four songs yet bootlegs of the show list more:
Medley: Back Door Man, Five to One
Fun rap (poem)
Touch Me (attempt)
Love Me Two Times
When the Music`s Over
Light My Fire
It’s a (very) minor point I realize but if the producers can procure a recording of the concert so that they can include some of the ravings, why is a basic fact about the night wrong?
My terminal bitch is this: Jim Morrison was deified here. At one point, Depp says in one of the film’s many over the top bits of narration that Manzarek considered Morrison to be a shaman. Perhaps so but, considering how the film makes Morrison out to be a god, I’d like to hear that from the keyboardist’s own mouth. The movie is very up front with the crap that Morrison pulled. Performing drunk, passing out, etc. It even notes that the very last Doors show with Morrison on 12 December 1970 in New Orleans featured the singer sitting down and refusing to sing. Here’s how Wikipedia describes what happened:
During the Doors’ last public performance, at The Warehouse in New Orleans, Louisiana, on December 12, 1970, Morrison apparently had a breakdown on stage. Midway through the set he slammed the microphone numerous times into the stage floor until the platform beneath was destroyed, then sat down and refused to perform for the remainder of the show.
But Depp’s narration exonerates Morrison and essentially blames all of his bad behavior on booze and drugs. Is this really fair? The above description sounds like a little child having a temper tantrum, not a great artist or shaman. It’s at least worth having a debate as to whether Morrison’s antics were signs of uncompromising genius or of a drunken asshole. Perhaps both. But When You’re Strange has no interest in portraying its subject as anything other than the greatest thing since sliced bread and that’s sad.
It’s sad because I love The Doors’ music and think they have a rightful place of prominence in rock history. Unfortunately what we have here is merely an attempt to glorify Jim Morrison instead of trying to understand him or understand The Doors as part of a particular era. Too much emphasis is placed on the exceptions instead of the rule. Sure, the shows where Morrison was arrested are important but focusing on them to portray him as a great social outsider is to cast a tin ear on the dozens and dozens of performances where the band simply proved their mettle by playing their music. What about the music? There is nothing unique about the band members bringing disparate influences to the table as lots of groups did that. So where is the discussion about how these influences came together to create something special and how the band’s approach changed over the course of six albums? What makes Morrison Hotel a different animal compared to their debut? And what is the band’s musical legacy? We are told enough about Morrison’s lasting reputation of being a wild child but nothing about the music remaining important 40 years on.
This is perhaps the greatest failure of When You’re Strange. It’s more of an exercise in rubber necking where we watch Jim Morrison crash and burn than an argument for the importance of The Doors that justifies a feature film made of their story.