What do we talk about when we talk about the ‘60s? In Tom DiCillo’s beguiling documentary When You’re Strange: A Film about the Doors, he identifies the beginning of the era: November 22, 1963, as three gunshots ring out in Dallas.
“This is the land where the pharaoh died,” Jim Morrison wails on “The Wasp (Texas Radio and the Big Beat)”. The storm is coming and from that cataclysm the Doors are born. Their 1966 debut album begins with a daemonic anthem to upset the existing order: “Day destroys the night / Night divides the day / Try to run, try to hide / Break on through to the other side”.
The documentary begins improbably with an excerpt from Morrison’s 1969 homemade film HWY, where he’s hitchhiking on a desert road. A driver in a Shelby Cobra pulls over. In the next scene, Morrison is gunning the Cobra through the desert, alone—the implication being that he’s murdered the driver.
“There’s a killer on the road,” Morrison warns in “Riders on the Storm”. As Morrison races through the desert, one is reminded of the question posed in the Doors operatic “The End”: Driver… where you taking us? The destination is never revealed, but one thing is clear: a charismatic madman is at the wheel.
When You’re Strange tracks the remarkable rise of the Doors. Formed in 1965, the band consists of a quartet of eclectic yet serious musicians: Ray Manzarek is a classically trained pianist, Robby Krieger is a flamenco guitarist who switches to electric, and John Densmore is an accomplished jazz drummer. Fronting the band is Morrison, a blossoming poet and songwriter.
The documentary relies exclusively on archival footage from 1966 to 1971. This imbues the film with a vivid sense of time and place. We see Morrison cycling around Venice Beach; we witness the band in the studio cutting takes for The Soft Parade; and then there’s concert footage, where every Doors performance is a tightrope walk for their unpredictable singer.
Narrator Johnny Depp offers a perfect description of the band’s sound:
The music is strange… different—it takes the listener into the shadowy realm of dreams. The organ carries the hint of the carnival, both childlike and darkly disturbing. It’s no accident that the band’s second album featured circus performers on its cover. But if the band has a surreal fairground air, it is Morrison who is the frenzied trapeze artist.
The band’s history is a cataclysmic cycle of success and disaster, with Morrison the instigator for both. The Doors are the house band at L.A.’s Whiskey A Go Go when Elecktra founder Jac Holzman discovers them. After signing a three-album deal, the band performs the surreal “The End” for the first time—at Morrison’s insistence. The song is a dark acid trip of rape, incest, and patricide. The band is fired after the set.
The band’s first album includes “Light My Fire”, arguably the signature hit of the decade. As the Doors begins to tour, the documentary relies on grainy concert footage, audio tracks and still photographs to reveal something extraordinary: Morrison morphs from pop star to daemon. He dances with reckless abandon onstage, as if in the throes of ecstasy. He crashes to the floor and writhes as if possessed. He whips the crowd into a frenzy—violence and rioting follow.
Morrison is a modern Dionysus in the guise of a rock star, a deity who inspires joy and madness. Ray Manzarek describes Morrison on tour as “like an ancient shaman, leading his followers into worlds they’d never dare enter alone.“
The Doors release a streak of brilliant followup albums, mixing gorgeous pop confections with darker fare. Their second album, Strange Days yields the hits “You’re Lost, Little Girl” and “Love Me Two Times”. The third album Waiting for the Sun, released in 1968, includes another smash, “Hello, I Love You”. The songs are perfect pop radio fare, and the band‘s popularity begins to rival the Beatles.
Alas, the end is already at hand. The film’s climax focuses on the infamous 1969 Miami show, as Morrison taunts his audience: “You’re all a bunch of slaves… let people tell you what to do. How long are you going to let them push you around? What are going to do about it? WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO ABOUT IT?”
Lacking any video footage of the performance, the documentary relies on a sequence of photos coupled with an audio track. A woman jumps onstage and douses Morrison with champagne. He strips off his shirt and challenges the audience to undress. Shirts, pants, bras sail through the air. The bacchanal is nearly complete. “Alright,” Morrison shouts, “here’s my cock.” The fans rush forward and the stage collapses.
According to Greek myth, whenever a god reveals himself to his cult, calamity follows. Once the daemon sheds his disguise, death is near. Facing felony charges for indecent exposure, Morrison begins a downward spiral fueled by cocaine and booze. Like a wounded oracle, Morrison coughs up blood. He flees to Paris, the ancient city of wine and poetry, and dies there.
Yet Dionysus only dies to be reborn, and Morrison’s daemonic presence remains. Forty years later, the Doors still sell over a million albums a year and are a constant staple on album-oriented radio. When You’re Strange captures a brief moment in time of a legendary band in a fabled era. It ends just like its subject matter: unfinished, mysterious, and brilliant.