When You're Strange: A Film About The Doors
When You’re Strange is director Tom DiCillo’s loving yet flawed homage to The Doors. The film is comprised almost entirely of original footage of the band, shot between 1966 and 1971. It follows members John Densmore, Robby Krieger, Ray Manzarek, and Jim Morrison from their first performance to heated recording sessions, and ultimately, to Morrison’s tragic death at the age of twenty-seven. When You’re Strange survives on the momentum of the bands’ energetic presence and explosive sound. Footage of live performances prove entrancing, with Morrison’s unpredictable behavior and chaotic energy filling the stage.
The film portrays the band as the voice of a generation—musical innovators voicing the anxiety and hope of the 1960s youth movement. DiCillo places the personal narrative of The Doors against the national narrative of the United States, illustrating how The Doors’ music fed off of the violence of Vietnam, the hope of the Civil Rights movement, and the anxiety of a nation at war. DiCillo is perhaps too enamored with the idea of Morrison as a tragic hero, as the narration refers to Morrison as a “shaman” with a poet’s soul “trapped between heaven and hell.”
Unfortunately, the frenetic pace of the original footage is undercut by the stilted narration, provided by Johnny Depp. Even Depp’s thoughtful reading cannot surmount the series of bland factual statements and flowery metaphors that comprise the script. Throughout the film, the band (particularly Morrison himself) is visually and aurally described in relation to fire and flames—an obvious and groan-inducing reference to The Doors hit “Light My Fire.” These aural metaphors are reinforced by the image of an extinguishing flame.
Ultimately, When You’re Strange is an enjoyable and reverential examination of The Doors that accurately presents the zeitgeist of the time. The film sustains itself on the vibrancy and charisma of the original footage, which keeps the film from sinking under the weight of its fragmented narration. Doors fans will enjoy it for its rare glimpses into the band’s history, but the film itself lacks the verve of its subject.