Smells like Doors are on fire – When You’re Strange

This is a lively fresh paced film by Tom DiCillo. As documentaries go it manages to show off how amazing the band were without descending into blind hero worship. With vintage footage and an original use of their music this feature covers the period when The Doors were breaking through right up to the end of their union as a 4 piece. Johnny Depp’s narration fits the tone perfectly and this is no nostalgia fest but a fresh roller-coaster look at this iconic band.

Written and directed by Tom DiCillo “When You’re Strange” spans the years 1965 –1971, from the conception of The Doors to Jim Morrison’s early death in a bath tub in Paris.

DiCillo mercifully doesn’t use talking heads or show us clips of old men reminiscing about their youth or telling us what The Doors meant to them (whilst smoothing their hands over their hair plugs). Instead using only vintage footage, much of it previously unseen, DiCillo has woven together a feature documentary that feels like a genuinely fresh look at one of the most iconic bands of the last century.

It begins appropriately enough, at the beginning. If you don’t know the tale Morrison and Manzarek (the keyboardist) originally met at the UCLA film school – Jim was writing poetry and Ray was playing in his brothers surf band. Later after Jim dropped out they met again; Jim had been working on lyrics for a rock concert he heard in his head. Once Ray heard Jim singing he suggested they jam together with John Densmore (who Ray knew from meditation class), a percussionist, and Robby Krieger, Densmore’s friend who had only been playing electric guitar for 6 months. During a summer during which Robby wrote, “Light my Fire” The Doors sound was born.

The music of The Doors features throughout with not only grainy gig clips (that are never self-indulgent) but also an artful use of other songs, it is always complementary and not clichéd. Johnny Depp’s laconic delivery of DiCillo’s narration is a perfect match for the subject matter; Depp being the epitome of cool.

The tone and mood of the footage match that of Jim Morrison; at the beginning all is light and optimistic showing much of Morrison’s childlike playfulness and dopey grin and as the music and life of Jim gets darker so does the footage and the feel. As Jim’s drunken alter ego Jimbo appears so the footage shows an increasingly confused looking and unhappy man. Although the film is about The Doors as a band inevitably it focuses on Morrison, his poetry, tortured soul, attention seeking behaviour and intensifying dissatisfaction with the life of the band; his descent from experimental LSD into heavy boozing and cocaine.

Along with Doors footage we are treated to clips and sound bites from the era covered; from hippies and protest, assassinations, Vietnam and the death’s of Morrison’s peers Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin (with Jim prophetically suggesting to friends he would be next). The band were vilified by conservatives who felt their music was an evil influence (much like the music of anyone who taps into the ability of teenagers to break out of the bonds of their parents and have a bloody good time) but as Jim said their music couldn’t help but reflect what was happening around them.

It is suggested that The Doors forged the consciousness of whole generation and it is difficult to disagree, they still sell a million albums a year and this documentary certainly does make you see The Doors anew. Far superior to the Oliver Stone 1991 biopic this film makes you want to revisit their music which still sounds so fresh and alive.

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