When You’re Strange Review

Weird scenes inside the goldmine: the story of Jim Morrison and The Doors, narrated by Johnny Depp.

To many people, The Doors is Jim Morrison. That’s certainly unfair on Ray Manzarek, Robby Krieger and John Densmore, who bravely but ill-advisedly carried on after Morrison’s death, recording two studio albums that I doubt many people listen to nowadays. (Krieger and Manzarek reformed the band in 2002 with various lineups, including Ian Astbury of The Cult as lead vocalist up to 2007 and Stewart Copeland on drums up to 2003.) What is true, that while many distinguished bands have a central core of members while others come and go – The Rolling Stones and Steely Dan are examples – there are others where each one of them is vital and the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. The Beatles aren’t the Beatles without all four of them. The Who and Queen are not the same with half their lineups absent (through death, or in Queen bassist’s John Deacon’s case retirement). The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, whatever those parts go on to do outside the whole. The Doors are a major band of the late 1960s, and a highly influential one, and Morrison is a vital part of the continuing fascination their best music has.

Opinions clearly vary on James Douglas Morrison himself, a man who hadn’t sung in public before joining The Doors. To some, he was live-fast, die-young personified, rock star as shaman, with some claims to being a poet, one heavily influenced by William Blake and the French symbolists. Oliver Stone’s 1991 film The Doors gives us the story in deliriously overblown print-the-legend style. To others he was a drunken arsehole, worse a pretentious drunken arsehole. The truth is as ever somewhere in between, and Morrison was no doubt a compelling stage presence, even if that compulsion lay in wondering what the hell he would do next.

There’s also no doubting the band’s musical prowess. Tom Dicillo’s film makes it clear how unusual a band this was. Keyboards (played by the classically-trained Manzarek) were as much the lead instrument as guitar (played by Krieger, whose background was in flamenco). Holding it together was a drummer (Densmore) who was rooted in jazz and big-band music. There was no bass guitarist, the low end being supplied by Manzarek’s left hand. (They used session bassists in the studios, Douglass Lubahn on three albums and Jerry Scheff on the final album with Morrison, L.A. Woman.) Also, while Morrison was principal lyricist, you shouldn’t neglect Krieger who wrote some of the band’s biggest hits, including “Light My Fire”.

Together, the four produced six studio albums, starting strongly with The Doors and Strange Days. The middle two are something of a slump, Waiting for the Sun featuring many songs that had been left off the first two, and The Soft Parade being overly dominated by pop content, much of it written by Krieger. They still have their moments, though. With Morrison Hotel/Hard Rock Cafe drew heavily on the blues and saw the band’s energy and force recovering. Given the fraught circumstances of its production, including Morrison’s increasingly erratic behaviour and the departure of their regular producer Paul Rothchild, it’s a wonder that L.A. Woman is as good as it is – to my mind it’s up there with the first album, but rather darker and blues-based. Soon after it was made, Morrison died in Paris, at the rock-star blackspot age of twenty-seven.

Tom Dicillo’s film, his first documentary, presents the story entirely through found footage, much of it never seen before. This includes footage of the band on stage and in the studio, plus contemporary news and archive material. We also see Morrison in clips from a student film. Johnny Depp provides narration, but there are no contemporary interviews with the three surviving bandmembers or indeed anyone else. It’s a very well put together film, especially in the editing. The story will certainly be familiar to fans and the major episodes are all here: Morrison’s Oedipal on-stage rant that became part of “The End”, Morrison being forbidden to sing the word “higher” in “Light My Fire” on The Ed Sullivan Show but doing it anyway, Morrison allegedly exposing himself on stage in Miami, and many more. While this will be very informative to newcomers, it’s the rare footage that will be the lure for established fans like myself. However, while there’s plenty of material about Morrison’s relationship with Pamela Courson, the film skips over the episode where he married Patricia Kenealy (now a SF/fantasy writer) in a Celtic pagan ceremony, mentioning this only in passing and not even naming her, simply referring to her as a “white witch”. Ultimately, though, Dicillo’s film is more in favour of Morrison than against him. It ends by saying that he may have burned out quickly, but you can’t burn out if you weren’t on fire.


Updated: Jul 10, 2010

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When You’re Strange Review | The Digital Fix