Friday, April 9, 2010

When You're Strange: Waiting for the substance

Death was both the best and worst thing that Jim Morrison ever did to the Doors. His demise at 27 in a Parisian bathtub felt like some morbidly natural conclusion to a wildly dynamic narrative sparked on Venice beach only six years earlier, when Morrison first met and wooed keyboardist Ray Manzarek with the words to ‘Moonlight Drive.’ It also confined this band’s singular blend of baroque psychodrama and bluesy swagger to a time capsule and completed the total eclipse of the singer’s enigma over the richer, more intricate designs of the music to which he made such a vital, yet nonetheless only partial, contribution.

To ensure history that the Doors were so much more than just another ’60s psychedelic freak show, as well as more than just Jim Morrison, forms the ostensible raison d’être of Tom DiCillo’s
When You’re Strange: A Film About the Doors. Yet this deeply orthodox rock-doc nearly sabotages itself with narration—voiced by Johnny Depp—riddled with token generalizations about youth culture ideology, and numerous montages that seemingly go out of their way to forever link the Doors’ music exclusively with the greatest hits of the period’s headlines, however incongruous, such the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Setting ‘Riders on the Storm’ to a series of clips of atrocities in Vietnam at once domesticates images that should never be treated lightly and severely limits the more mysterious and evocative qualities of that spectral late career hit.

I said the film
nearly sabotages itself. What helps to rescue it from merely trading in tired clichés are the often mesmerizing performance clips, both on stage and in studio, that finds a quartet of musicians highly sensitizes to each other’s nuances, and, perhaps ironically, the leather-panted Lizard King himself. Archival footage, some never before seen, of Morrison as a teenager or some of the more off-the-cuff, backstage bits help to penetrate the Morrison mystique, which always threatened to drape the band in pretentiousness. Some of the more extensive clips allow us to glimpse a young, confused, awkwardly shy, gorgeous alcoholic, one given to faux inarticulateness and affected rowdiness, one always negotiating the conflicting impulses that prevented him from fully giving himself either to forging a larger, more demanding musical project or retreating into poetry and quietude. The Morrison we see, especially when still relatively untainted by celebrity, is at times genuinely spontaneous, deliciously mischievous, a man-child with an infectious grin and undiagnosed behavioral issues that when harnessed could yield some truly inspired performances, lyrics, and, yes, stunts.

A hard-working filmmaker who, having shot Jim Jarmusch’s early features, emerged from the 1980s independent scene to make cult films like Johnny Suede and Living in Oblivion, it’s not obvious what led to DiCillo’s helming of When You’re Strange, or to his pedestrian approach. The absence of talking head interviews with the surviving Doors or any other form of fresh commentary might seem like a virtue or some sort of rigour, an attempt to immerse us in the era. But I couldn’t help but gradually start to miss something else to balance this approach, something, again, to make the Doors about more than the 1960s, to offer something fresh about this band that for all its excesses deserves some serious reconsideration. Thankfully, the best documents of what the Doors were all about are still readily available—they’re called records.

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