'When You're Strange': The Doors Speak for Themselves

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Wolf Films

So I went to see the new documentary about the Doors, When You're Strange, directed by Tom DiCillo. There can never be enough documentaries about the Doors, in my opinion - the band is a fissure in the American psyche, into which you can delve limitlessly while Ray Manzarek's keyboard goes peedle-eedle-eedle. And was there ever a rock star more beautiful than Jim Morrison? Rather ballsily, DiCillo in his movie has elected to use no talking heads at all. None of the usual rock'n'roll greybeards, or the drawling insiders; no "You see, what you have to understand about Jim..."

Instead we are invited into a kind of Doorsian fugue-state, via revelatory and largely-unseen footage of the young god Morrison swimming in rockpools, driving through the desert, kneeling by a dying coyote, touching the wound of an injured fan backstage (a miracle does not occur), and generally lurching pelvically about as if being dragged through the world by a spirit-hand on his belt-buckle. (We do hear one voice: that of Johnny Depp, who provides muttering, dourly hep narration along the lines of "It was the 60s. The counterculture was exploding.")

I was on board with DiCillo's no-heads policy until we came to a sequence from a concert that the Doors were playing with the Who. Suddenly I longed for the droll perspective of Who guitarist Pete Townshend: I wanted to see Townshend's head fill the frame, and to hear him cantankerising in his nasal English way. "Morrison was a tit," he might have said. "A tit. We all wanted to strangle him! Except for Keith, who wanted to comb his hair."

Another fascinating aspect of the movie, to me, was the images it provided of the pre-industrialized stadium rock show. We all know what a big show looks like these days: the fenced-off spaces, the crash barriers, the stoical, yellow-shirted bouncers with their ears plugged, palms up for the next crowdsurfer. When You're Strange shows us the Doors pushing through a crowd to get to the stage, high-shouldered and nervously carrying their instruments.

And then things get Doors-specific: Morrison, at the microphone, is literally ringed by cops - awkward, shapeless cops up on stage with their thumbs in their belts, staring around bullishly, chewing gum, not knowing quite what to do. Will the crazy singer say FUCK or brandish his organ? Will deranged girls tear him to pieces and then eat him? Morrison, for his part, looks delighted with this freshly-created area of ritual space; inside the circle of policemen he capers and leaps and swoons like Dionysus. Faintly ridiculous, utterly enthralling.

When You're Strange will be on PBS on Wednesday at 9 p.m. (ET) Tune out Johnny Depp's narration if you can—it's a streak of prose, when the rest of the film is poetry.

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James Parker is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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