WHEN YOU’RE STRANGE
Starring Jim Morrison,
Johnny Depp (narration)
Written and directed by Tom DiCillo
Running time 86 mins.
There’s a rusty old car in a desert that looks like it’s stuck in a ditch. Through the shattered windows of the tilted machine we see a form move. The door opens up at an angle, and out pops Jim Morrison.
Yes, Jim Morrison. Fresh from the days of color, in the flesh, and larger than life, long-haired and leather-clad, thumb out by the road. That’s no actor playing Jim, it’s the real Lizard King himself, radiating mojo. He had gone out in the desert one day with a friend and shot some film for an idea he had about a hitchhiker.
It’s just some of the footage we’ve never seen before in what is far and away the ultimate film source of, to put it mildly, one of the greatest bands ever. True, When You’re Strange, beautifully written and directed by Tom DiCillo, did not come out this year, but rather in 2009. However, nobody told me. And hey, look, checking the old wristwatch we see now it’s forty years since the Doors. In April of ‘71 they released “L.A. Woman,” and a few months later, that July, Jim died in Paris.
A large part of what makes this movie work so jaw-droppingly well is the fine narration by Johnny Depp. Perfect guy for the job. But the narration would be nothing if it wasn’t so stunningly written.
For example, the music of the Doors is “music for the different, the uninvited. It carries the listener into the shadowy world of dream.” Sweet. And then there’s: “The organ carries a hint of the carnival, both child-like, and darkly disturbing.” Ahhh. Nice.
Mostly though what we get is the fullest picture we’ve ever seen of Jim. For one thing, portrait of a dude havin’ a ball. I got the feeling reading No One Here Gets Out Alive thirty years ago that Jim Morrison hardly ever smiled. I recall a caption to a photo saying something like, “A rare one of Jim smiling.” Well there’s an important piece of inaccuracy. One thing that sticks in my mind from the film is Jim’s incredibly infectious smile. Like when he steps off a plane and someone with a camera says, “Name?” He goes, “Uh...Jim.” Then, “Occupation?” And he just sort of looks at the camera with this mischievous grin that cracks me up thinking about it.
As much as I enjoy hearing whatever Ray Manzarek, Robbie Krieger and John Densmore have to say today, I think it’s a terrific choice not to include them sitting down talking about “the old days.” We get the insightful narration, but we also get to really feel the life of what’s going on at the time. Mostly, what’s going on is Jim. The music is so different, so original and pure, it’s as fresh today as it ever was. When You’re Strange fantastically covers the whole Doors story.
“I think that in the States these days,” quoth Jim with a languid tilt of the head to his tone, “you have to be a politician or an assassin to really be a superstar.”
He always was ahead of his time. Now, in the Year of the Door, we’re just beginning to catch up.