When You’re Strange

(2009) director Tom DiCillo
viewed: 07/11/10

Growing up as I did in Gainesville, FL in the 1970’s-1980’s, local commercial radio (and college radio for that matter) were mired in the era of “classic rock” which became the real bane of my existence musically.  Obviously, some people liked it, but my entire taste in popular music evolved essentially in opposition to what I heard on the radio, and as a result, I grew to loathe a lot of the major musicians and groups that are the definition of the “classic” term regarding rock.  And frankly, it’s taken me a long time to develop an appreciation for the better groups and artists of that blanket term because I just have an immediate cringe and gag reaction to a lot of that stuff.  While I’ve managed to develop an appreciation for the Rolling Stones to an extent, for every group that I’ve come to tolerate, there are still major groups that I despise like the Beatles, Pink Floyd, and Led Zepplin, to name a few.

The Doors are perhaps one of the cusp bands for me.  I used to really, really hate them.  But I’ve come to see in their music some of the germinating elements that infused themselves into other later groups that I really do like.  That said, I’m still not 100% sure how When You’re Strange, a new documentary about The Doors, managed to make it into my movie queue and hit the top of the list.  But it did.

It’s directed by Tom DiCillo, who had directed a number of moderately notable indie films including Living in Oblivion (1995), Box of Moon Light (1996), and Delirious (2006).  And from what I’ve read, it’s an attempt to tell the story of The Doors and Jim Morrison more the way that they feel the story should have been told, I guess in opposition to Oliver Stone’s The Doors (1991), which unsurprisingly, people found to be an Oliver Stone take on the world rather than a cogent and actual one.

The Doors were a unique mixture of personalities and talents, none more so that Morrison himself.  He’s a model for any number of rock stars to follow him, with his sexy preening, indulgent poetry, and pure star persona.  And you can see how people, especially those closer to the real man, might want to help capture just the specific nuances of his personality and talents, as well as his short-comings and ultimate oblivion, to demystify and de-mythologize the man.  And the film is educational in that regard, quite a bit more “by the books” if you will, a more direct and normalized documentary style with a comfortable narrator in the voice of Johnny Depp.

One of the film’s perks for hardcore enthusiasts are never-before released footage of the band, of Morrison’s student film, of their disastrous Miami, FL concert for which Morrison was charged and found guilty of public indecency.  Along with this, DiCillo adds some “recreated” images of a Morrison look-alike who travels the highways in sort of mystic ways.  I guess that it’s hard not to make Morrison out to be a mystic to an extent if you dig his whole shtick.

Actually, I found the film to be a good, decent affair, not revelatory, not overwhelmingly convincing that this was or wasn’t one of the great bands of the era.  But Morrison’s crash and burn, dying in Paris at the age of 27, joining Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin in the sad triumvirate of young tragic rock stars of that time who perished at the very same age, is a compelling story.  It reminded me a tad of the situation that John Lydon recounts of Sid Vicious’s death in The Filth and the Fury (2000) (a far more compelling rock’n’roll documentary in my opinion, and not just because I prefer the Pistols to the Doors), in that these young musicians, caught up in the fame and chaos of their lives, dealing with their own personal issues and tragedies, how they find themselves confronting a friend who has severe drug dependency issues, how they are all just too inexperienced to be capable of trying to help save their friend from eventual death and oblivion.

Well, a personal oblivion anyways.  Gosh knows that a documentary is testament to not being lost from cultural consciousness.

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