A medley of grainy super-8 footage, Tom DiCillo’s When You’re Strange strips The Doors down to no-holds-barred exuberance. Or is it just wallowing in the mire?
When You’re Strange
Shaman’s Blues by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
In 27 short years, Jim Morrison managed to construct a vast iconography of photos and video footage, his pouty stare engraved into an insatiable public consciousness. So it’s impressive that this ‘biodoc’ has managed to mine such a rich seam of exclusive footage. Despite a narration voiced by Johnny Depp whose wry matter-of-factness cuts through Tom DiCillo’s reverent reliquary of images, When You’re Strange can hardly be described as iconoclastic. But still it manages to break a few myths of its own, raising Morrison up to visionary poet before charting his Icarus-like fall to earth as little boy lost.
“If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is. Infinite.” And so, according to Tom DiCillo, with an excerpt from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell by William Blake, The Doors got their name – neatly sidestepping Aldous Huxley’s own psychedelia-inspired borrowing of the plume. It’s a clever legerdemain, neatly foregrounding the poetry of The Doors, trumpeting Jim Morrison as the Sixties’ most telegenic poète maudit, an acid-dropping Rimbaud breaking back through from the other side.
The Doors first opened in 1965 when Jim Morrison sang Moonlight Drive to keyboard-player Ray Manzarek on Venice Beach, a song he’d written for an imaginary rock concert in his snake-riding head. It’s an anecdote that firmly posits Morrison as the creative force behind The Doors. Both poet and shaman. With perhaps a whispered aside for guitarist Robbie Krieger, who penned some of their most popular tunes, including the breakthrough hit Light My Fire. But in a decade of violent assassinations and war, it’s leather-trousered Morrison who becomes poster boy for the country’s drugged and disaffected.
While Manzarek, Krieger and Densmore gradually retreat from drugs into meditation, Morrison loses himself in it, turning up at album recordings and gigs drunk, high or both. No longer the shy performer, he writhes around the stage, celebrating the lizard. Caught up in the rule-breaking, peacenik counterculture of the age, Morrison’s woozy antics rapidly threaten to overshadow the music, The Doors’ concerts becoming less about the songs and more a hooting colosseum, daring Morrison to go further and deeper, and finally culminating in his arrest for indecent exposure at a concert in Miami.
Yet despite Morrison’s daredevilry and audience-baiting, The Doors’ concerts are a potent mix of jazz-rock improvisation and intoxicated ecstasy. Morrison does seem to have a direct line to the music; an entranced shaman able to alchemise his addled mind journeys into dusky, heartfelt phrasing. And music has a power over him, able to conjur him back from the brink of oblivion – when a tanked Morrison falls into a supine stupor onstage, all The Doors can do is keep playing. Plying crescendo upon crescendo, until they manage to raise him back from the wasted.
The spiritualism of The Doors is mirrored in the film’s deft and faintly mystical editing; vintage shots of Morrison on a highroad to nowhere, listening to news of his own death on the radio. Echoing the singer’s eventual flight to Paris and poetry, the scene marks a fictional, or metaphorical, death for Morrison, free from the chains of celebrity and iconography to roam his spiritual netherworlds like a modern-day Orpheus. Or perhaps just to live.
And so with cine-camera footage of Morrison’s last days, taking a dip in a French river somewhere, When You’re Strange ends. Despite the fame, the booze and the drugs, Morrison’s an innocent again – freed from the heroin overdose that might otherwise end his story. Instead, Depp informs us that ten years after his death, Morrison Senior (who Jim fantasised about killing in The End) was finally able to admit his son was a talented musician. For DiCillo, Morrison’s happy end is a posthumous reconciliation with his family, as if the singer’s ride on the highway west was just a barnstorming search for love and approval. When maybe all he really wanted was to keep riding the blue bus.
When You’re Strange is released in the UK on 2nd July 2010.