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Film Review: When You're Strange

Benjamin Walker
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
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PARK CITY -- Sundance fave Tom DiCillo returns to the snow with his first documentary, "When You're Strange," a look at the legendary if not mythic rock band the Doors. Despite the fact the Doors' remarkable, chaotic 54 months in the media spotlight transpired in an era before MTV, videos and cell phone cameras, DiCillo has found enough archival footage shot between 1966 and 1971 to fill all 88 minutes of this hypnotically watchable doc. Reportedly, much of it is never-before-seen footage.

After a run on the festival circuit, "When You're Strange" would make more sense as a DVD and VOD item for the still considerable following of the band and its iconic lead singer and sometime lyricist Jim Morrison.

Even more than most bands from that era, the Doors captured the tenor of the era, the youth movement and the counterculture. DiCillo situates the virtual overnight success of the band within this zeitgeist, but this is the least successful section of the movie. The summation of the '60s is cursory and shallow.

But once Morrison and Ray Manzarek pull together a band based on little more than Morrison's writing down a "concert I hear in my head" -- bringing aboard Robby Krieger and John Densmore -- the film takes off.

DiCillo, who dryly narrates the film, notes how the band differed from others in that era, specifically the lack of a bass player and the extemporaneousness of its performances. But it's more than that: The Doors' music, DiCillo says, "carries the listener to the shadowy realm of dreams."

The first time the group played "The End" occurred at the Whisky a Go Go in West Hollywood, where the Doors were the house band. Morrison was just coming down from an acid trip so no one else knew where he was going. The song is one of the band's greatest -- and the performance got them fired from the nightclub for being "sick."

Morrison was a pretty-boy rebel, prone to narcissistic poses and strutting on stage and off. Remember, he was a UCLA theater arts grad. He was also, DiCillo believes, built for stardom. It happened so fast and he became such a media figure that it's hard to argue. He had the air of a poet and indeed did self-publish two books of poetry toward the end of his brief life.

A few interesting revelations come along with the new footage: His singing heroes were Elvis Presley and later Frank Sinatra. He always had doubts about his own voice, even though he shouldn't have.

But his drug bingeing and alcoholism put an increasing strain on the band's recording and performing careers. One album took nine months to record due to his repeated no-shows. Fans came to Doors concerts less for the music than to "witness a spectacle."

Every performance was a leap into the void. His band members' whole purpose was to keep Morrison alive onstage.

Morrison's tragic downward spiral to his death in Paris at age 27 is charted with sadness but no sense of exploitation or the macabre. An arrest for alleged indecent exposure at a Miami concert -- the film suggests there was little basis for it despite his conviction -- and his increasingly wild behavior eventually led him to taking a break. He never returned.

The film pays scant attention to the controversy surrounding his death. DiCillo frequently cuts to footage from a short film Morrison made in 1969 where he played a desert drifter. DiCillo lets the news of Morrison's death come over a radio in a car Morrison himself is driving on a remote highway. This is as close as DiCillo comes to acknowledging the long-time rumor that Morrison staged his own death.

The film virtually ignores Morrison's family and doesn't investigate fellow band members with sufficient depth.

In other words, "When You're Strange" could be longer without Doors fans complaining.

The film ends with this thought: Morrison may have burnt out too quickly. But "you can't burn out if you're not on fire." Jim Morrison and the Doors were definitely on fire.

Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images

Production: Walking Films and Strange Prods. in association with Rhino Entertainment.
Director/screenwriter: Tom DiCillo
Producers: John Beug, Jeff Jampol, Peter Jankowski, Dick Wolf
Director of photography: Paul Ferrara
Music: the Doors
Editor: Micky Blythe, Kevin Krasny
No rating, 88 minutes