In the loose palace of exile: When You’re Strange ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 17, 2010)

Just another band from L.A.

I can still remember the first time I heard “Riders on the Storm” by the Doors. I was all of 14. It haunted me then and haunts me now. Even though it wasn’t a movie, it was my introduction to film noir. Distant thunder, the cascading shimmer of a Fender Rhodes and dangerous rhythms. “There’s a killer on the road. His brain is squirming like a toad.”  Fuck oh dear, this definitely wasn’t the Archies.

I’ll tell you this-it sure as hell didn’t sound like anything else on the radio at the time (especially considering that it squeaked in at #99 on Billboard’s Top 100 for 1971, sandwiched between the Fifth Dimension’s “One Less Bell to Answer” and Perry Como’s “It’s Impossible”). Jim Morrison’s vocals really got under my skin. Years later, a friend explained why. If you listen carefully, there are three vocal tracks. Morrison is singing, chanting and whispering the lyrics. We smoked a bowl, cranked it up and concluded that it was a pretty neat trick.

By the time “Riders on the Storm” hit the charts, the Doors had begun, for all intents and purpose, to dissolve as a band; Morrison had left the U.S. to embark on an open-ended sabbatical in France. When he was found dead in his Parisian apartment in July of 1971 at age 27, it was no longer a matter of speculation-the Doors, Mk 1 were History.

But what a history-in the 4 ½ years that keyboardist Ray Manzarek, guitarist Robbie Krieger, drummer John Densmore and lead vocalist Jim Morrison enjoyed an artistic collaboration, they produced six timelessly resonant studio albums and the classic Absolutely Live (which still holds up as one of the best live albums ever by a rock band). They are also one of the first bands to successfully bridge deeply avant-garde sensibilities with popular commercial appeal. It was Blake and Rimbaud…that you could dance to.

There have been a fair number of books about the band over the years; a few in the scholarly vein but chiefly of the “tell-all” variety. Like many Doors fans, my introduction to the Jim Morrison legend came from reading No One Here Gets Out Alive many moons ago. The book was co-authored by journalist Jerry Hopkins and Doors insider Danny Sugarman. In retrospect, it may not be the most objective or insightful overview of what the band was really about, but it is a wildly entertaining read.

That was the same takeaway I got from Oliver Stone’s way over-the-top 1991 biopic, The Doors. Interestingly, I found his film to be nowhere nearly as “cinematic” as the Doors music has always felt to me (Francis Ford Coppola nailed it-it’s all there in the first 10 minutes of Apocalypse Now).

Surprisingly, it has taken until 2010, 45 years (!) after UCLA film students Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek first starting kicking around the idea of forming a band, for a proper full-length documentary feature about The Doors to appear, Tom DiCillo’s When You’re Strange.

You’ll notice I said, “about The Doors”. Stone’s aforementioned film ultimately lost its way as a true portrait of the band, I believe, because it was too myopically fixated on the Jim Morrison legend; Morrison the Lizard King, the Dionysian rock god, the drunken poet, the shaman. Yes, he was all of that (perhaps more of a showman than a shaman), but he was only 25% of the equation that made The Doors…well, The Doors. That’s what I like about DiCillo’s film; he doesn’t gloss over the contributions of the other three musicians.

In fact, one of the things you learn in the film is that Morrison himself always insisted that all songwriting credits go to “The Doors” as an entity, regardless of which band member may have had the dominant hand in the composition of any particular song (when you consider that Morrison couldn’t read a note, that’s a pragmatic stance for him to take). The band’s signature tune, the #1 hit “Light My Fire” was actually composed by Robbie Krieger-and was allegedly the first song he ever wrote (talk about beginner’s luck). He’s a damn fine guitar player too (he was trained in flamenco, and had only been playing electric for 6 months at the band’s inception).

Manzarek and Densmore were no slouches either; they had a classical and jazz background, respectively. When you piece these snippets together along with Morrison’s interests in poetry, literature, film and improvisational theatre (then sprinkle in a few tabs of acid) you finally begin to get a picture of why this band had such a unique vibe. They’ve been copied, but never equaled.

The film looks to have been a labor of love by the director. Johnny Depp provides the narration, and DiCillo has assembled some great footage; it’s all well-chosen, sensibly sequenced and beautifully edited. Although there are a fair amount of clips and stories that will qualify as old hat to Doors aficionados (the “Light My Fire” performance on the Sullivan Show, the infamous Miami concert “riot”, etc.), there is a treasure trove of rare footage.

One fascinating clip shows the band in the studio constructing the song “Wild Child” during the sessions for The Soft Parade. I would have been happy to watch an entire reel of that; I’m a real sucker for films like Sympathy for the Devil, Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii and Let It Be, which offer a glimpse at the actual creative process.

The real revelation is the interwoven excerpts from Morrison’s experimental 1969 film HWY: An American Pastoral, which I’ve never had an opportunity to screen. Although it is basically a bearded Morrison driving around the desert (wearing his trademark leather pants), it’s mesmerizing, surreal footage. DiCillo must have had access to a pristine master print, because it looks like it was shot last week. It wasn’t until the credits rolled that I realized this wasn’t one of those dreaded recreations, utilizing a lookalike. As a matter of fact, Morrison has never appeared so “alive” on film. It’s eerie.

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