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film review: when you’re strange

According to Hollywood legend, when auditioning for the role of Jim Morrison in what would become the 1991 film The Doors, Val Kilmer presented director Oliver Stone with a tape of several Doors tracks. He told Stone that half of the tracks were the originals and half were Kilmer singing over the instrumental master track, asking Stone if he could tell which were which. Stone was startled at the similarity, but made his best guess. Kilmer then revealed that, in truth, he was the singer in all of them.

Not a bad story, right? Not sure if it’s true. At any rate, it’s a bit of a shame seeing as that movie turned out to be a giant turd.

The new documentary, When You’re Strange, from director Tom DiCillo is, conversely, not. The always-solemn Ray Manzarek, driving force and former keyboardist of the Doors, called it “the anti-Oliver Stone movie”, which will come as high praise to the many fans who felt Stone’s movie presented a sexed-up, titillating and ultimately inaccurate portrayal of the rise of The Doors and it’s leading man. When You’re Strange is a far more levelheaded account, but never shies away from the details. After all, how often do we hear the words “rock and roll” with the words “sex” and “drugs” preceding it?

The film’s great strength is in its simplicity. There are no interviews, eye-witness accounts or cobbled-together dramatisations to skew the events, but rather only artefacts – photos, newspaper articles and brilliantly compiled stock footage – with Johnny Depp’s smooth narration guiding us through the mayhem like a tour-guide on a bus calmly pointing out all the smashed-up cars on the side of the road.

DiCillo adds only one bit of artistic indulgence, a small but haunting dramatised sequence that is interspersed freely throughout the documentary, almost as a film within a film. It features an actor in the guise of Jim Morrison awaking by the side of a typical American highway and slowly hitch-hiking his way back to LA, as all the while news reports play over the radio announcing Morrison’s death. Whether this is supposed to represent an afterlife or just some sort of epitaph is never made clear. Whatever the intention, it adds a nice and subtle touch, poetic and much like a Doors song; surreal, moody, and richly American.

The film’s objective, undoubtedly, it to capture the complex essence of Jim Morrison. This is no easy task. Poetic, highly intelligent, unstable, hopped up on goof balls, unsure, uncompromising. However spot on Kilmer’s singing was almost 20 years earlier (and credit where credit’s due, it really was pretty damn spot on), it was still a portrayal. The character had to be chopped up and boiled down and fed through the psyche of someone else and like many celebrity biopics, tried to summarise an extraordinary life into a familiar ‘isn’t it a crazy old world’ story. In contrast, When You’re Strange just opens a window, and nothing can convey Morrison’s character better than his own distant expression, gazing across the post-mortem decades through archived celluloid.

(Image credits: 1.)

One thought on “film review: when you’re strange

  1. Hopefully the new film won’t scar me like the last one. Stone’s character portrayal turned me off the Doors for years. Tragic.

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