Although there have been scores of mostly unauthorized (and mostly bad) documentaries made about Jim Morrison and the Doors over the years, director Tom DeCillo's When You're Strange stands out for a number of reasons.
Made with the full cooperation of surviving Doors members Ray Manzarek, John Densmore, and Robby Krieger, When You're Strange includes plenty of never-before-seen footage of this legendary band both live onstage and in recording sessions from throughout the band's brief, but meteoric career. Many of these unreleased scenes are also quite revealing, as they show Morrison drunk, uncensored, and even somewhat belligerent at times in the studio. What's most surprising, though, is the way Morrison mostly still holds his own once the tape starts to roll.
Even though Morrison's Jekyll and Hyde antics have been previously well-documented in books like Jerry Hopkins and Danny Sugerman's No One Here Gets Out Alive and movies like Oliver Stone's The Doors, seeing the actual drunken Lizard King on film in some of his more, shall we say, "altered states" of consciousness, is a fascinating sight — even if it's in a trainwreck sort of sense.
The concert footage here likewise shows Morrison fully engaged in the unpredictable hijinks he became famous for — and which during the band's latter days probably sold more tickets for the shows than the music itself.
What is most remarkable about these live scenes is the way the band keeps its collective cool, and soldiers on like the consummate pros they are, even as Morrison wildly rants and raves, or occasionally just clean passes out onstage mid-song. What's also notable is just how clean most of the live footage looks here considering its age. Although some of it is being seen for the first time, even the previously released material looks to have been considerably cleaned up, and looks a lot less grainy than in some of the unauthorized knock-offs out there.
Narrated by Johnny Depp, When You're Strange mostly treads ground that will be familiar to fans in retelling the Doors' story. It hits on all of the major points, from the fateful meeting of Morrison and Manzarek in art school, through the band's residency at L.A.'s Whisky A Go-Go, to Morrison's infamous bust at a 1969 Miami concert for indecent exposure.
Its treatment of Morrison is most notable, though, for the way that it neither sensationalizes nor sugarcoats his journey from rock and roll sex symbol to pathetic, bloated, and drunken, but mostly frustrated poet. You see him in the early days, and get a sense of his populist appeal as he mingles with the crowd during a stadium show where the Doors once shared a bill with the Who. And you see him as a shadow of his former self in the weeks just before he was found dead in a bathtub in Paris.
Particularly interesting are several recurring scenes from a never-before-seen film showing the bearded, latter-day Morrison hitchhiking, and later driving through the southwestern desert, making stops at various roadside service stations and the like.
The way these scenes are filmed, you almost think for a second they are outtakes from the Oliver Stone biopic because they look and feel nearly identical in texture. What I have since learned is that these are apparently scenes from a self-made film by Morrison himself. If I'm wrong about this, though, I'd welcome a clarification — as I'm honestly still not 100% sure either way.
Extras on the DVD include the first-ever interview with Jim's father, retired Naval Admiral George C. Morrison, talking about his son's life and art. Not surprisingly, the Admiral was disapproving early on of both Jim's career choice and his lifestyle, but seems to have since made peace with his status as a legendary rock icon. Jim Morrison's sister is interviewed as well.
Originally seen in a limited theatrical release earlier this year — where it was screened mainly in art houses and at festivals like Sundance — When You're Strange is a sure to be welcomed home video viewing experience for Doors fans. It is also available on Blu-ray.