If there’s anything the world surely doesn’t need it’s one more admiring regurgitation of the Jim Morrison mythos. Overfamiliar from Oliver Stone’s 1991 biopic and its deep entrenchment in the oral history of American culture, the image of the Doors frontman as a brilliant, mystical, but finally self-destructive artist is one of the more tired legends to emerge from that period that amateur pundits (and professional filmmakers) are pleased to render abstract and ideal by applying the monolithic term “the ‘60s.” The truth is that Morrison was an electric performer, but a dreadful poet whose excesses, lyrical and otherwise, proved to be the band’s downfall, and in Tom DiCillo’s When You’re Strange: A Film About the Doors, indulgences of all kinds are spun predictably positive.
Morrison’s poetry is praised by narrator Johnny Depp as being “symbolic and pure” even as a later bit of doggerel (“poor pretentious soldier come home”) suggests otherwise, while attempts to soberly render the singer’s drug and alcohol problems only end up adding to the man’s aura of cool. When Depp tells how the “professional drinkers” assigned to maintain watch over Morrison “couldn’t keep up” with his boozing, the line plays like a winking punchline designed to assert the singer’s badassery.
But even those fans more sympathetic to the band’s project than I am (and I’ll cop to enjoying much of the group’s shorter form music while disliking “epics” such as “The End” and “When the Music’s Over”) aren’t given much to work with. For the converted, the material will seem well-worn, given DiCillo’s determination to play to the uninitiated, but hardcore fans will happily wade through the familiar story to take in the archival footage from which the film’s visuals are wholly derived. And the quality of this material—ranging from familiar scenes such as the famed Miami concert where Morrison subjected the crowd to a Living Theater-derived harangue to less documented footage of the band recording The Soft Parade—is undoubtedly the film’s strong suit, but DiCillo completely botches its presentation. Not content to simply let it play out, the director dices the material to suit his dull-minded purposes, including a silly opening montage in which an assortment of footage is run backward while images of the band’s album covers flash by and a pair of live performances near the film’s end which DiCillo disastrously intercuts with images from current events of the late ‘60s.
These last sequences speak to the film’s biggest weakness: its insistence on tying the Doors’s music in with the history of its time period while imagining that time period in its most reductive terms. Setting the stage, an early bit of narration presents to us the ‘60s as if we were grade schoolers watching a filmstrip introducing us to Vietnam, the civil rights struggles, and Woodstock for the first time. Worse, DiCillo keeps referring monolithically to the “youth movement” as if there was one organized group of young people that were fighting for a specific, unified set of goals and then, as 1970 rolled around, suddenly faded away. The director’s attempts to link the Doors’s music to the upheavals of the late ‘60s reaches its groan-inducing nadir in a late sequence when he cuts back and forth between a live performance of “The End” and archival footage of the deaths of Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Jimi Hendrix as well as the disasters of Kent State and Chicago ‘68.
This is the end indeed—not only of the ‘60s, but of the rapidly splintering band, and the use of the group’s controversial song makes the connections nice and neat while absolving DiCillo of the need to dig too deeply into any essential link between the two. Afterward, all that remains is Morrison’s death, an event that DiCillo commemorates with a shot of a match burning out, and it speaks to the film’s paucity of imagination and understanding that its director has already called on this image in the movie’s opening and is so unembarrassed about his employment of a bit of symbolism that was already moldy during his subjects’ heyday that he repeats it with nary a trace of self-consciousness, instead coupling it with a hammy epitaph that mercifully brings his disastrous project to its own last end.