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When You’re Strange

GEMMA DE CRUZ:  Tom DiCillo's Doors documentary film could easily be another exploitative look at the ‘60s through Californian sunshine/protest/rock’n’roll-started-here tinted glasses; but take those off for a second and this film also tells an interesting story. Doors’ lead singer Jim Morrison had it all; he was creatively and financially successful in his early twenties and the band’s second single release hit number one, with the debut album earning each  member a cool $50,000 in royalties. But, we all know that number one records do not a rock god make, Lou Reed is evidence of that. So what are the key ingredients? Drug addiction, leather trousers, an out of control ego, fame and a suspicious death, ideally, age 27.  It would be difficult for any documentary film about The Doors to avoid the urge to either focus on or deconstruct Morrison’s rock star blueprint, but When You’re Strange makes a good attempt to tell the entire story, from the band’s film college roots against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, to their recording techniques (and internal relationships) and parallels with The Rolling Stones.  

So what’s Johnny (the Mad Hatter) Depp’s voice over all about?  It was good in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and likewise when he narrated Gonzo. It’s intentionally casual and almost too glib in places, here.  It works in the sense that he’s not gushing over Morrison, just reading through in a pretty deadpan way. The effect is that without a conventional ‘script’ there’s either footage or photographs set against the audio.  There are no talking heads at all so on a visual level the film feels authentic - beautifully grainy and dusty - inter-spliced with some naïve arty road movie footage of Morrison including an odd gas station scene. It does make you wonder if this is enough, do documentaries really need to wheel out everyone who was there and wrote a book about it?  But what comes through in this film is a genuine glimpse of Morrison’s sharp but unpredictable state of mind; that’s something you’ll never get in an anecdote, or a biopic.

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