While hardcore fans of The Doors aren’t likely to learn anything new about the band, When You’re Strange: A Film About The Doors, available on Blu-ray, provides a compact history lesson. Written and directed by Tom DiCello, the documentary traces the key events in The Doors’ evolution from young, inexperienced newcomers to legendary performers. It does all this in less than an hour and a half, which carries with it pros and cons. Much of the candid footage of the band is extraordinary, as are the brief live performance clips. The film could’ve been stronger by including more footage of that kind.
On the other hand, anyone who wants an overview of why The Doors mattered in the context of rock history will get just that. When You’re Strange makes an interesting companion piece to Oliver Stone’s The Doors. Stone’s 1991 biopic was an explosive epic, unrivaled in its recreation of live concerts. Stone’s sprawling movie brought to life events that rock fans had only read about. When You’re Strange includes brief glimpses of the same events, including the concerts that led to arrests of Jim Morrison in New Haven, Connecticut and Miami, Florida. It’s nice to see the actual footage, but it’s in far too short supply. After watching DiCello’s documentary I actually had the urge to rewatch Stone’s theatrical movie, simply because it carries more dramatic weight.
Narration is provide by none other than Johnny Depp, who delivers DiCello’s words in an authoritative tone. While Depp is at least as good a narrator as any, not hearing from the surviving Doors themselves (or other key personnel connected to the band) gives the movie the feel of an elaborate high school report. DiCello’s narrative is essentially an essay about the band, covering its history from a fan’s perspective. Never particularly critical, except of Morrison’s inebriated antics that increasingly hampered the band’s creative progress, DiCello doesn’t do enough to examine the weaker aspects of The Doors’ output. The various controversies are covered, including the aforementioned arrests as well as their refusal to self-censor for Ed Sullivan. The heavy substance abuse by Jim Morrison is accounted for as well. But weak albums like Waiting For the Sun and Morrison Hotel are treated with an apologists’ attitude, barely mentioned in fact.
Priceless footage is included of Jim Morrison mingling with fans before a Doors show, flipping through a program for their opening act The Who. We are treated to backstage footage of Morrison comforting a fan who was injured by a thrown chair during The Doors set. The group is seen working in the studio with producer Paul Rothchild. All of this material is the main reason for even the most casual classic rock fans to check out this documentary.
Presented on Blu-ray in 1080p high definition, When You’re Strange varies wildly in terms of visual quality. Being a documentary that utilizes archival footage rather than newly recorded interviews, none of the material looks especially great. Throughout the documentary, DiCello has used bits from a short film called HWY that featured Jim Morrison driving around on the highway. The blue sky is vivid, and fine details such as Morrison’s car kicking up dust come through sharply. But aside from that material (which only accounts for few minutes of the total running time), the concert and candid footage is a mixed bag. That’s not the fault of the Blu-ray production team, however, just the result of very old footage.
The audio choices are either DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 or PCM Stereo. Both are strong without being remarkable. The obvious stronger option is DTS, which allows the music to ring through the speakers with a full, rich sound. The narration is perfectly balanced at all times, never drowned out by the music. The various songs are played throughout in fragments, or interrupted by the narration, so this is not the ideal way to hear The Doors’ music. The stereo track is a fine alternative if you’re not equipped for 5.1.
Only one extra feature is included, but it’s a unique and valuable one. Listed on the menu as “Conversations with,” the ten minute piece consists of interviews with Jim Morrison’s sister and father (taped separately). The late Admiral George Morrison speaks in a measured tone about his son publicly for the first time, not long before he passed away. His comments are not particularly insightful, but it’s interesting to hear the man struggle to pay tribute to the son he admittedly didn’t really know. As for Morrison’s sister Anne, she recalls the strong temptation to believe rampant media reports that her brother had faked his death.
When You’re Strange: A Film About The Doors is recommended, though hardly can be considered definitive. The Doors, and Jim Morrison in particular, were simply too fascinating to capture their story in a scant 90 or so minutes. But this film definitely works as a Cliff’s Notes version.