DVD Review: The Doors "When You’re Strange"

DVD Review: The Doors "When You’re Strange" 
All Access Review:  A-

Inscribed on Jim Morrison’s Paris grave marker is a Latin phrase that, when translated to English, is said to mean “True to his Own Spirit.” Morrison’s estranged father, Admiral George C. Morrison, a man who admits to not really knowing his son the rock god all that well – something many in the Doors’ inner circle can relate to – claims to have chosen those words on the advice of a former language teacher. The by-the-book Navy man, so different from his wild-child offspring, got it right with this farewell tribute.

So does The Doors documentary “When You’re Strange,” now out on DVD through Eagle Vision. Where Oliver Stone’s feature bio-pic, “The Doors,” infamously played fast and loose with the facts, failed in epic fashion to capture the dark, mysterious essence of that most enigmatic and alluringly surreal of late-‘60s, early –‘70s counter-culture bands, this Tom DiCillo directed effort is unfailing in its quest for the truth. That is to say that it’s almost always on point whether reciting what really happened in The Doors’ brief, but incendiary, heydays in astonishingly rich and visually captivating detail or re-creating the swirling madness that swallowed up one cult hero and three serious musicians who, as guitarist Robby Krieger put it, made music that was more “symbolic than straight to the point.”

Of course, it helps to have a wealth of never-before-seen archival footage at your disposal. What’s your pleasure? Beguiling, and often riotous and unpredictable, live performances, some of it from landmark moments in Doors’ history, including the Miami incident and more of Morrison’s very public brushes with the law? What about candid vintage interviews with Morrison, Krieger, Ray Manzarek and John Densmore in which they try to explain the unexplainable, namely how their hypnotic music actually makes sense? There’s even film of The Doors at leisure and offstage rehearsals, of members’ lives before the band, plus Morrison’s prophetic movie of his own afterlife, a high-speed journey through a desert in a Mustang Cobra into the great unknown. Were that all there was to “When You’re Strange” it would be merely a funhouse of disparate images. What sets “When You’re Strange” apart is how artfully DiCillo and company pull it all together, with Doors’ songs like the funereal dirge “The End,” the ramshackle, carnival of sound that doubles as the film’s title, and other hits from the catalog gnashing their teeth above the surreal dreamscape of well-edited imagery.

And then there’s Johnny Depp’s deadpan narration, reminiscent of that of Martin Sheen in “Apocalypse Now.” Suitably dry and unobtrusive, Depp breathes gloom and tension into a script that, thankfully, offers a fairly in-depth and intelligent study of the musical chemistry of Manzarek, Krieger and Densmore before digging, with appropriate respect and very little sensationalism, into Morrison’s writings, his descent into alcoholism and its divisive effect on the band, and, ultimately, the cloudy circumstances surrounding his death in Paris. Add in intimate and revealing interviews with Morrison’s father, recorded prior to his death in 2008, and his sister, and what you get is a documentary that is dreamy, intoxicating and pure cinematic poetry.

-Peter Lindblad

Eagle Vision The Doors: When You’re Strange

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