Review: ‘When You’re Strange’

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For a band whose short, meteoric career was ignited by the hit “Light My Fire,” the first full-fledged documentary about the Doors, “When You’re Strange,” is distressingly short on creative spark or historical illumination.

The calling card of “When You’re Strange,” directed by Tom DiCillo and narrated by Johnny Depp, is some previously unseen footage of the band and its magnetic lead singer, Jim Morrison. That includes dramatic live performances from “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1967, a 1968 TV appearance in Copenhagen and shots from the anarchic Florida concert that led to Morrison’s conviction of indecent exposure.

But that footage is deployed in a Doors 101 manner that provides less insight about what earned Morrison and the group a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame than the band’s Wikipedia bio. The most inventive aspect of it is the inclusion of several scenes from Morrison’s own attempt at an indie film, “HWY: An American Pastoral.” But even those are given no context that might help further what ought to be a compelling look at the live-fast-die-young credo of the era.

That renders “When You’re Strange” of little interest to anyone beyond hard-core Doors fans hungry for any previously unreleased film or audio content.

Whether by DiCillo’s design or through the process of vetting it through the oft-contentious committee of those who control the Doors’ ongoing artistic and business dealings, the film rejects many of the principles of basic storytelling, skipping any modern-day interviews with the surviving members or others who could shine a light on why the band’s music and Morrison’s memory have so long endured. DiCillo, whose previous feature-length films include “Delirious” and “Living in Oblivion,” also opted against including interviews with musicians who were influenced by Morrison’s personal charisma, his poetry or the group’s often gothically dark music.

The visceral thrill of hearing the best of the band’s repertoire in the pristine recordings incorporated in the film does more to explain its ongoing popularity than the documentary’s paper-thin hagiography.

For the scant attention it pays to the backgrounds of Morrison’s band mates -- guitarist Robby Krieger, keyboardist Ray Manzarek and drummer John Densmore -- or their lives after his death in 1971 at age 27, it could easily have been titled “When He’s Strange,” since the overwhelming focal point is the Doors’ talented but troubled lead singer.

That’s to be expected, of course, given the sway that Morrison’s short life has held for so many pop music fans across nearly four decades. The downward spiral of that life into an abyss of alcohol and drug abuse is never explored, except for fleeting, pat references to his father’s life as a career military man.

It’s bittersweet to watch the snippets of home movie footage of Morrison as a smiling kid trouncing around his suburban neighborhood, but where’s the connective line drawn from that stereotypical childhood to the compelling star who emerged from the fertile Hollywood rock scene of the mid-’60s?

There are hints that as time went on, he became more interested in his poetry than his life as a rock star, but it’s a theme never fully developed, and there’s precious little sharing of that poetry to let the audience in on the content or quality of his writings.

Depp earnestly offers narrative links through a fairly conventional chronological unfolding of the Doors’ career, from Morrison and Manzarek’s meeting as film students at UCLA through their coming together with the blues-influenced Krieger and the jazz-minded Densmore to start a band to Morrison’s death in his bathtub in Paris, a sad ending that’s been endlessly romanticized.

The film also extends the myth of the Doors as America’s greatest rock group of the ‘60s, a viewpoint established in large part by Oliver Stone’s wildly fictionalized telling of their story in his 1991 film “The Doors.”

But the Doors was just one of many acts that came up during a ridiculously fertile period in pop music, and there were many others equally or more influential in various ways, from Buffalo Springfield to the Velvet Underground to Sly and the Family Stone.

“When You’re Strange,” however, looks at the Doors’ legacy, and pop music history, in only the most superficial way. DiCillo seems to have missed the wisdom of the very first track of the group’s debut album, the one so urgently advocating giving in to the impulse to “Break on Through (To the Other Side).”