Tom DiCillo's documentary When You're Strange is a fascinating, if occasionally mind-numbing, account of the history of the rock band the Doors, and their place in the pop-culture firmament of the 1960s -- or, more correctly, the 1960s as seen from the perspective of the 21st century. In that regard, it's more of a long-distance account of that decade and the cultural significance of the group's lead singer, Jim Morrison. A poet and aspiring filmmaker as well as a vocalist and composer, Morrison was more notorious -- at least, among non-rock listeners -- than idolized during the last couple of years of his life, thanks to the infamous "Miami Incident," where he was charged with public lewdness following a concert in that city. His true importance as a cultural figure wasn't clear until about a half-generation after his death, at age 27, in the summer of 1971. It is true that the Doors sold tens of millions of records, and that Morrison emerged as an iconic figure of the era in which he lived -- but in his time, he was, to most onlookers, a mere part of a noisy, mind-boggling chain of events, people, and music. It was really only in the late '70s and, much more so, the 1980s that his recorded legacy and work began to be seriously recognized. He didn't live past 1971, but it was only a decade later that it became clear that audiences were not only not letting go of his work or the band's music, but that their listenership was actually expanding, especially in proportion to the lack of promotion and exploitation on the part of their record label -- people were seeking out and finding the Doors' records (which had never gone out of print).
Narrated by Johnny Depp, When You're Strange takes us on a phantasmagorical tour of the 1960s, most of the events of which are represented in montages interspersed around the music and performances of the group, with the entire movie framed by footage from the 1969 Morrison film HWY: An American Pastoral and archival material shot by Paul Ferrara. For viewers born after 1965, DiCillo's embrace of the decade and the account of the group's activities will probably seem sufficient; to others (including this reviewer), the sliding along the timeline, with occasional shifting backward, and conflating certain events that were not all that chronologically connected with some songs, may come off as dishonest. It's true that the 1960s were something of a blur, even at the time, to many of those who were there, but some of the license taken in implicitly linking footage, songs, and events in the group's history seems more a construction of a filmmaker in need of an arc to his work than the reality of the songs or the events. Members of what they're now calling Generation Y (or are we up to Generation Z?) will undoubtedly soak all of this up in happy fashion, but one hopes that at least some of them seek out some serious writings and histories of the decade to sort out reality from DiCillo's assembly of it.
All of that said, the concert footage is startling, even for those familiar with good footage of the Doors. There is, by necessity, a lot of focus on performances where things went wrong, such as a chair-throwing incident at one relatively early performance and, of course, the Miami Incident, the full truth of which may never be known -- Was the prosecutor on a witch hunt? What was Morrison doing on-stage, and was it patently offensive? -- because the case and the appeal died with Morrison in Paris in July of 1971. The movie doesn't quite show enough of the performances where everything went off perfectly, or demonstrate well enough how this band could soar to astounding heights of poetic daring and sophistication in front of the right audience (for that, one should listen to the CD collection The Doors Box Set). When You're Strange just doesn't establish enough of a baseline for precisely how solid this band could be, and how firm its musical footing was, before plunging into the edgy, controversial sides of their history and Morrison's persona. In that regard, it's aimed a little too closely at the already converted, the existing devotees, who will love the behind-the-scenes footage and the state-of-the-art sound.
One important and oft-overlooked aspect of the band's appeal (and controversial nature) that is captured in this documentary -- but left oddly unaddressed in Depp's narration -- is that there were really three manifestations of the Doors. This comes out very clearly in the depiction of the aftermath of the Miami Incident, when we see period news interviews with a bunch of well-scrubbed Florida teenagers, each of whom voices objections to aspects of Morrison's performance. The simple fact is that the Doors had three faces to the public -- these teenagers (especially the girls interviewed) had obviously attended the concert expecting to find either the relatively tame, "housebroken" AM radio version of the band that they knew (or thought they did) from the three-and-half-minute singles that sold the band to mass audiences, or the bolder -- but still somewhat restrained -- LP version of the band. But what they got was Morrison and company as they really were, the concert version of the Doors, spontaneous (and maybe a little high, or drunk) and taking the music and the show wherever the impulse (and, indeed, sometimes the poetry) took them. Those kids' reactions, and the backlash against the group (with Anita Bryant, sans orange juice props, acting as cheerleader), are probably the most coherently telling footage here about the band not featuring the group itself, highlighting what their relationship to their times and their audience really were like. It's almost fitting that this comes near the end of the account of the group's concert years (or year -- they were only together for 54 months, and their first major national tour was cut short by the Miami Incident). After that, there were mostly studio projects and the two "comeback" albums, and Morrison's retreat to Paris.
When You're Strange is fine as far as it goes, but to anyone old enough to remember the era, it will probably seem noisy and even numbing, as well as confusing in the chronologies. It's also serious enough to be lacking in some aspects of fun -- this is a very dark take on the decade, in keeping with most of the group's music. The whole movie is a triumph for DiCillo, at least in shaping a vision of his subject, and anyone under the age of 50 is almost certain to enjoy it without hesitation -- the rest of us will want to sort out our own memories. It's more rooted in reality than Oliver Stone's The Doors -- probably the film vehicle by which most viewers "know" the band's story -- but it has its own twists on reality to complicate the historical record.