‘When You’re Strange’ movie review: The Doors documentary by Tom Dicillo

It’s glossy, haphazard, and doesn’t mine the material nearly as much as it could have: When You’re Strange offers up little new for fans of The Doors, telling the familiar story of sudden rise and fall of the band from 1965-71.

But with full cooperation from the surviving members of the band and unprecedented access to archival footage, director Tom DiCillo serves up a frequently excellent compilation of Doors music and classic footage of the band, tied together with soothing (if occasionally pretentious) narration by Johnny Depp. If nothing else, it’s a welcome 1.5 hours spent with The Doors and a reminder of the raw power they once had.

We start out with footage of Jim Morrison from the 1969 film HWY: An American Pastoral as news of Morrison’s death is heard over a radio broadcast. 

DiCillo returns to HWY throughout the movie during extended sequences that feel disconnected from the rest of When You’re Strange; they also recall the mystical desert theme of Oliver Stone’s disappointing 1991 biopic.

But then we get to the good stuff: archive footage and photography tracing the band from its formation at UCLA in 1965, performances at LA clubs London Fog and Whisky-A-Go-Go, early studio albums produced by Paul Rothchild, up through the famous appearance on Ed Sullivan and the turning point for the band, the 1969 performance in Miami that landed Morrison a conviction on trumped-up indecency charges.

Throughout it all, a near-constant soundtrack provides a best-of compilation of lengthy selections from the band’s short career: Light my Fire at London Fog and then on Ed Sullivan, Touch Me on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Break on Through at the Isle of Wight Festival, People Are Strange, The End, Riders of the Storm, and so on. 

When the music stops, Depp steps in with some basic what-you’re-seeing narration and readings from Morrison’s books of poetry.

As with any look at The Doors, the focus here is on Jim: the drugs, the alcohol, his poetry, his relationship with longtime girlfriend Pamela Courson, his untimely death in 1971 at age 27. 

Still, the other members of the band – John Densmore, Robby Krieger, and Ray Manzarek – are at least given a fair shake here, something they don’t usually receive. The scenes focusing on the inner workings of the band and the studio recordings are some of the more interesting in the film.

Anyone familiar with the band won’t find much new in When You’re Strange, but they might enjoy (as I did) a return to the music and the time, refreshingly devoid of any talking heads or intrusive commentary. For anyone unfamiliar with The Doors, this isn’t just a good primer but a must-see collection of their music and footage from highlights of their short career.

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Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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