An eerie specter haunts the opening scenes of the new Doors documentary, "When You're Strange: A Film About the Doors." Underneath a foreboding desert sun, a bearded and bedraggled hitchhiker wanders through the desolate Joshua tree expanse. He gets behind the wheel of a Mustang Cobra and switches on the radio to hear an announcer broadcasting the news of Jim Morrison's death. The scene creates a cognitive dissonance. Is this man a Jim Morrison doppelgänger, or have the filmmakers unearthed unseen archival footage of the deceased Doors lead singer?
The images in question, it turns out, were culled from outtakes of Morrison's self-financed 1969 film, "HWY: An American Pastoral." And according to Tom DiCillo, the writer and director of "When You're Strange," potential doubters wouldn't be the first to question the authenticity of the reel.
"We were showing it at Sundance and a distributor disgustedly stormed out of a screening," DiCillo recounted. "I ran down the street to ask why he'd left and the distributor replied, 'I can't believe you'd use an actor in this movie.' I laughed and told him that I'd never do such a thing." The proof, in fact, is in the mere existence of "When You're Strange." To gain use of the music, DiCillo had to appease the three remaining members of the notoriously fractious band, as well as Morrison's estate.
"It shows the Doors as they were, which is a good thing," said Doors guitarist Robbie Krieger. "I wish we had gotten more footage, but who knew back then that we should've had a camera truck following us? But maybe it's good that we didn't. It lends an air of mystery to everything. I still believe that the Doors live -- at their best -- have never been caught on camera, but there's some stuff in this movie that comes close."
Narrated by Johnny Depp, the first feature documentary about The Doors uncovers rare and never-before-seen footage.
DiCillo obtained the Morrison footage near the end of production, when the filmmakers were preparing to make do with a bleached-out version of the frontman's experimental film. Opting to include only sequences left on the cutting room floor, "When You're Strange" uses the "HWY" material as a recurring motif, repeatedly cutting back to the images that were recorded during one of the singer's most tumultuous periods: the aftermath of his 1969 indecent exposure arrest in Miami.
Indeed, one of the film's producers, Peter Jankowski, similarly lists the confusion regarding the "HWY" material as an obstacle that affected the $2-million production.
"Because the footage looks like it was shot yesterday, we put a disclaimer on the film for the Berlin Film Festival to let audiences know that there are no actors or re-creations. People still couldn't believe it," said Jankowski, the longtime executive producer of "Law & Order."
The recently excavated 35mm reels are far from the film's only selling point. The producers also gained access to rare footage captured by Paul Ferrara, an old UCLA film school classmate of Morrison, and organist Ray Manzarek, who documented the band for much of their career. Before commencing work on the production, DiCillo spent several weeks watching the old films and attempting to get a handle on the vast sums of material that ranged from full scenes to unfocused and soundless shots.
Narrated by Johnny Depp, the 90-minute film revolves around plot points familiar to Doors disciples: their genesis at UCLA's film school and a chance encounter on Venice Beach; the Whisky a Go Go residency; Morrison's refusal to heed Ed Sullivan's request to remove the word "higher" from a performance of "Light My Fire" on Sullivan's variety show; and the singer's frequent scuffles with the law. It features scenes from the band's Miami concert in which Morrison allegedly exposed himself to the crowd, and includes thrilling takes on some of the band's most timeless songs, including "Light My Fire" and "The End."
From the myriad authorized and unauthorized biographies, countless Rolling Stone covers and the tell-all tomes penned by drummer John Densmore and Manzarek, the story of the Doors has been exhaustively cataloged over the last 40 years. Yet the only feature-length depiction of the band until now has been Oliver Stone's "The Doors," a portrayal that rankled members of the group.
The surviving members of the Doors view "When You're Strange" as a chance to reveal a more nuanced portrait, and perhaps alter perceptions of the band's equally lionized and lambasted lead singer.
"Oliver Stone made a movie about Oliver Stone in leather pants," Manzarek said. "That wasn't Jim Morrison. That was [Stone] if he was a rock star." DiCillo, he adds, conveyed the band's story, philosophy, outlook and spirituality. "It captures what was going on in the 1960s: the assassinations, the war, the madness, the hopes, and, in a way, the destruction of the dreams of an entire generation."
Historically opposed to licensing the Doors name, Densmore sued his ex-bandmates in 2003 for breach of contract, trademark infringement and unfair competition, stemming from their plans to tour as the Doors of the 21st Century. Yet Densmore rhapsodized about the new documentary, particularly DiCillo's decision to forgo the use of talking-head interviews from the surviving band members.
"Watching the old footage reminds me of this crazy dream I had years ago. There's something magic there," Densmore said. "Maybe it's because it doesn't have any old geezers jabbering about their past. It's Johnny Depp taking you on a road movie with the Doors. You're going to live it, sit on the drum stool, and take the ride. It's got Vietnam, the assassinations, the events that affected us all. Artists don't exist in a vacuum. It's everything that happened before the tragedy. We all know the tragedy."