When You’re Strange: A (Bad) Film About The Doors

For over 30 years, I’ve been a fan of The Doors. I was knee-deep into the band when the book No One Here Gets Out Alive was released and by the time I’d turned the last page I was well over my head. For a teenager, the wild tales of Jim Morrison’s excesses were like nectar. Morrison wasn’t simply a drug addicted drunk like Janis Joplin, he was a poet, a shaman. Or as the beginning of that first bio put it, “Jim Morrison was a god. At least a lord.”

The book, by Jerry Hopkins and Danny Sugarman, became the boilerplate for all future Doors releases. And that’s too bad because now that my teenage years are behind me, I think the book is junk.

The problem is not that the book has errors, but that No One Here Gets Out Alive encased Jim Morrison in a mythology that is, at best, half-true.

From every page of the book, you can hear the authors screaming “Look at the tormented genius!” One doesn’t get the impression that Morrison had a really serious drinking problem; instead Morrison is portrayed as a Dionysian shaman who tests the boundaries of existence through a derangement of the senses. Well, no. He was a drunk and a drug addict, but mainly a drunk. He wasn’t testing boundaries any more than the guy I see on Park Avenue in the morning, staggering down the street with his pants around his knees.

But the book was a moneymaker, and it brought a renewed interest in the band…an interest that greatly profited Ray Manzarek, Robbie Krieger, and John Densmore.

Since the publication of Alive, there have been a score of books about the Doors, a boxed-set of rarities, remixed reissues, officially released bootlegs, a full-length feature film, concert films, a VH1 Storytellers episode featuring the surviving members and a rotating gaggle of lead singers, and even a tour featuring Ray, Robbie, and Ian Astbury doing his best, most shameless, Morrison impersonation. Most recently there is a 90-minute documentary narrated by none other than Captain Jack Sparrow himself, Johnny Depp.

Some of this material has been great. I’m very partial to the “Doors Collection” DVD that compiles their videos, Hollywood Bowl performance, and their interview/performance at PBS, along with backstage film footage. I also thought Ray Manzarek’s book Light My Fire and John Densmore’s book Riders On The Storm were both excellent. Stephen Davis’s biography of Morrison, Life, Death, Legend is one of his better books.

But for the most part, the Doors remain trapped in the amber that is No One Here Gets Out Alive, and that’s a pity. Somewhere out there, right at this moment, Ray Manzarek is telling the story of meeting Jim on Venice Beach. He is using the words “Dionysos” and “shaman” without the slightest trace of irony. Rather than the story being a celebration of the Lizard King’s lyrics, vocals, humor, and life it is the story of one man’s descent into alcoholic hell. In recent years, Manzarek has been more forthrightly stating that Morrison had a real problem and that drunken Jim was not a pleasant guy to be around. But all too often he couches his criticism in that No One Here Gets Out Alive myth that Morrison was a dark god testing the boundaries of human experience in his endless quest to break on through to the other side.

Which brings me to When You’re Strange: A Film About The Doors. Among Doors fans, there was a lot of hype around the Tom DiCillo-directed documentary since it promised lots of unseen footage and the cooperation of the surviving band members. It was all a sham.

The only remotely interesting thing about the documentary is the inclusion of clips from HWY, a short film made by (and starring) Jim Morrison. The footage from this film is pristine and oddly fascinating, but it in no way compensates for the fact that this is an otherwise dreadful documentary.

Clocking in at a paltry 86 minutes, the entire history of the band from formation to inglorious end is given less screen time than their incendiary first album gets in the Classic Albums: The Doors DVD (now, that’s worth watching). There are no interviews with anybody in the band or their extended entourage. Almost all the footage has appeared on other Doors-related DVDs and videos. Events are told out of sequence (the story of July 1969’s Soft Parade album is told before the story of the 1968 New Haven on-stage arrest and the March 1969 Miami incident). The narration by Johnny Depp is breathless and overheated, and the script he’s reading sounds like a first draft that was written in one weekend by someone whose only knowledge of the band came from a cursory reading of No One Here Gets Out Alive. Any Doors fan with a working knowledge of the band will be more than familiar with the story as it is presented here. Like their disappointing coffee table book The Doors By The Doors, this is Doors 101, an introductory class for a band that merits so much more. On the plus side, the footage of a hapless flight attendant asking the Doors if they’re a band “like the Monkees” is priceless.

One of these days, somebody will sit down with the surviving members of the Doors and force them to stop regurgitating the mythology. Yes, Jim Morrison was a drunk and a drug addict, but while he may have gone on stage three sheets to the wind, he wasn’t writing that way. Nobody writes good songs while inebriated. This is the Morrison I want to hear about: the poet, the songwriter, the music fan. I want to hear about the man, his sense of humor, his sober relationship with the other Doors. The Doors came out of an explosive era in rock music, but aside from their infatuation with Arthur Lee’s Love, the Doors seem to exist outside of the music scene. It’s almost impossible to get musicians to stop talking about music, but the Doors seem to talk about everything except music.

There’s a real human story behind this great band. It is not a tale of gods and lords, of shaman or Dionysian ecstasy. The story of the Doors is the story of four friends who were exceptionally good musicians, who wrote great songs, who rehearsed, who laughed together, who toured the world. Yes, the tales of drink and drugs, of arrests and outbursts of violence, are there, but these episodes of excess are not the whole tale, just part of the larger, human story. Hopefully there will be a documentary someday that will tell the whole story, not just the salacious parts.

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