DVD Review: Tom DiCillo's When You're Strange: A Film About The Doors, starring Jim Morrison, narrated by Johnny Depp (with trailer video)

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As the highway footage of Morrison intertwines with the story of the counterculture rock band, the desert road the viewer drives along as his passenger becomes a cinematic metaphor for the journey of The Doors, with Morrison a ghostlike escort into their rock ’n’ roll past.

The suitably trippy effect is achieved through some pretty brilliant filmmaking by the rock-doc’s writer and director, Tom DiCillo. The opening and various desert highway scenes weaved within the film make the viewer feel as if they are watching something otherworldly, because it really is a youthful Morrison taking the audience on the ride (with all of the footage coming from his 1969 poetic filmmaking endeavor HWY: An American Pastoral).

Basically, DiCillio and Co. took the vintage recording, used modern technology to clean off the dust and spruce up the audio/visual quality, and then dubbed in the radio broadcast from the morning of Morrison’s death. Because of this filmmaking trickery, Morrison witnesses the announcement of his own demise while listening to the radio in the Shelby, thus resulting in an eerie, dreamlike perspective present throughout the film.


It is because of the remastered HWY footage, and the way it is used to move the rockumentary along and capture the essence of The Doors, that When You’re Strange is a must see for any fan of The Lizard King and his trio of multidimensional musicians. In addition to the HWY scenes, the entire rock-music tale is told through historic and never before seen footage captured on film during 1965 (when the band began to break on through musical barriers) and 1971 (when the music was over due to Morrison’s death); it features intimate moments caught during studio sessions, backstage gatherings, legendary onstage performances and random interviews from the ‘60s.

There are no “in hindsight” type of interviews with the still-living members of The Doors — Ray Manzarek, Robby Krieger and John Densmore — or present-day interviews of any kind included in the film. Everything is told through the past and, after watching, you cannot help feeling as though you have just time traveled to the era of peace, love and bell bottoms — when anyone over 30 was the enemy and everyone questioned authority while wearing a flower in their hair.

However, while the film focuses a fair amount on the counterculture and the musical chemistry of the band as a whole, When You’re Strange is ultimately an in-depth study of one of America’s first and most iconic rock ’n’ roll stars.

Viewers meet the young Morrison who read Nietzsche and William Blake as a child, and follow him as he grows into a film student and poet attending UCLA, where he is introduced to Manzarek and eventually becomes the vocalist for The Doors. We watch him transform from a self-conscious singer, unable to face his audience during their first performance at the Whisky A Go-Go, to the attention hungry, charismatic front-man who would gyrate and flail in musical outbursts with the intensity of a television priest saving people with the holy ghost. “To Ray, he is like an ancient shaman leading his followers into worlds they’d never dare enter alone,” Johnny Depp, the narrator of the rock-doc, says as footage of Morrison’s drug possessed stage antics plays on the screen and is accompanied by a live sound recording of the song “Love Me Two Times” in the background.

[image-2]“Morrison is both innocent and profane. He’s a rock ’n’ roll poet. Dangerous and highly intelligent — no one has had this exact combination before,” Depp tells the viewer.

As we see Morrison go from psychedelic-enlightened front-man to the debaucheries of drugs, which leads to his infamous problems with alcohol, there are definitely moments where the lackluster scriptwriting, in combination with Depp’s deadpan delivery, comes off almost worse than anything found in a VH1 Behind the Music special. However, there are insightful moments sprinkled throughout where the prose becomes metaphorical and inspired and, in my opinion, Depp delivers this material eloquently.

One example where DiCillo’s writing was compelling, is when he described the general vibe of the band by writing, “The organ carries a hint of the carnival; both childlike and darkly disturbing … it’s no accident their second album, Strange Days, features circus performers on the cover … but if the band has a surreal, fairground air, it is Morrison who is the frenzied trapeze artist.”

Ultimately, the film takes the viewer on a time-traveling journey and places them smack-in-the-middle of a late 1960s Doors’ show with thousands of wild fans, then it throws in a backstage pass, giving viewers access to the other side with intimate information about the band. When You’re Strange celebrates the music and the historical time period it mirrors while peering inside the consciousness of one artist before he slipped into forever unconsciousness.

When You're Strange features an amazing soundtrack with various live versions of songs from the band's catalog, sound bites from members of The Doors and some of Morrison's poetry. Also, the DVD has a special feature that includes an interview with Morrison's father, Admiral George C. Morrison, who until this film had never publicly discussed his son's life.

“Fact is the music is strange. It is music for the different, the uninvited; it carries the listener into the shadowy world of dreaming.” When You’re Strange: A Film About The Doors

With a rising sun illuminating the sky red and charcoal clouds floating to the sound of an ethereal hum, When You’re Strange, the latest cinematic glimpse into the world of The Doors, opens like a hazy morning dream.

As the camera comes into focus, viewers see a totaled vintage cruiser with the windows busted out. The car is on its side and coated with sand — Jim Morrison climbs out of the wreckage, gazing around at the desert highway surrounding him.

With a fur-collared jacket flung over his shoulder and his tousled long hair blowing in the desert wind, Morrison hitches a ride. However, moments later — as if in a dream — Morrison becomes the driver; the viewer, his passenger in a 1967 Shelby GT Mustang; “Love Man” by Otis Redding plays eerily on the radio.

Suddenly, there is a news report and Morrison turns up the volume, “We interrupt this broadcast to bring you a special bulletin. Rock music fans all over the world are in mourning today. Jim Morrison, lead singer of The Doors, was found dead in his Paris apartment this morning.” The screen flashes with a montage of footage yet to come in When You’re Strange, except everything is in a quick rewind mode, and the viewer realizes they are now at the beginning of a very surreal ride.

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