When I was 15 or 16 I wasn’t simply a fan of The Doors, I wanted to be
Jim Morrison. That necklace he wears in those famous shirtless photos?
I made one for myself. Made it. Didn’t buy it, but actually got beads
and string and studied the photo and perfectly recreated it. I suspect
there are a lot of people who had similar experiences, and who
similarly eventually grew out of it. Morrison appealed to my self-image
as a tortured poet and genius and (potential) ladies man, but as I got
older I began to see the hollowness of his poetry and that his
self-destruction wasn’t really romantic but pathetic. By the time I was
in my mid-20s my relationship with The Doors was mostly severed, and
the group was reduced to a band who I would sing along with if they
happened to come on the classic rock radio station.

The first ten minutes of When You’re Strange, Tom DiCillo’s documentary
about The Doors, rekindled that adolescent fixation with Morrison. That
wasn’t a function of the film but rather the footage of Morrison
himself; even having lost my youthful shine to him the man is
undeniably magnetic. That magnetism is only increased by the fact that
DiCillo has filled his documentary with footage that Morrison shot of
himself for some kind of film project; bearded and shaggy, Morrison
drives through the desert, meeting people and coming upon various
situations. This is unseen stuff, a new side of Morrison that you would
doubtlessly think was staged in the modern day by a lookalike if you
didn’t realize it was previously unseen footage.

Unfortunately that footage (which DiCillo often uses to great effect in
illustrating aspects of The Doors’ story) is the only thing that is
worthwhile in this spectacularly underwhelming documentary. Eschewing
talking head interviews, DiCillo instead provides a sometimes tedious,
often on the nose narration over lots and lots of (quite good) archival
footage. At first I was intrigued by this approach, but after a while I
began to realize that I wanted the perspective provided by people
looking back at the time. Instead of hearing DiCillo telling me what
Morrison said to John Densmore, I wanted to hear John Densmore say what
Morrison told him. I wanted insight from the people who knew him, and
the people who were there. Without that insight the film becomes a
simple survey course of Doors history – I don’t know that there’s
anything in the film that was new or revelatory.

Except for the footage. But after a while I kind of wished I could just
see the footage and not have to sit through interminable Vietnam
sequences. DiCillo strives mightily to put the band into a 60s context,
but so much of this is obvious and on the nose that I don’t know who he
thinks his audience is. When You’re Strange might be a great entry
point for a 14 year old intrigued by the music of The Doors, but for
anyone with any knowledge of the band – or who has seen Oliver Stone’s
movie – it feels mightily redundant.

When You’re Strange feels like something I might have liked better on
DVD, watching from the comfort of my couch. When I’m watching a doc in
a theater I expect something really new to be brought to the table in
terms of insight, understanding or even facts. I’d rather watch unseen
footage in a more comfortable, casual situation. As a first exposure to
the history of The Doors I’d still recommend Oliver Stone’s movie over

5 out of 10