Few rock stars have thrown such a long shadow over contemporary culture as Jim Morrison, the lead singer and primary songwriter of The Doors. In this beautifully crafted and visually rich documentary, veteran director Tom DiCillo (The Real Blonde, Living in Oblivion) weaves what must have been the mother of all lost footage finds and both studio and live recordings into a seamless and hypnotic 90-minute encounter with the Lizard King. About the only thing one can hold against When You’re Strange is the way the Morrison story turns out, and that’s not really the filmmakers’ fault. Nor does it seem to be anyone else’s but Morrison’s. He was clearly as hellbent on self-destruction as any rocker yet, and it would have taken some extraordinary deus ex machina to pull him from the wreckage of his behavior.
The well-known ending of the Jim Morrison story doesn’t stop DiCillo from finding new ways to get there. The editing of all that juicy footage from the late 1960s and early 1970s waxes lyrical, borrowing its tone and style from the chaotic breakdowns and booming climaxes of The Doors’s music. With re-issuer extraordinaire Rhino Records on board as a producer, the film, unlike many lesser rock-docs, never pulls up short when it comes to rolling out the classic songs.
While not a concert film by any means, When You’re Strange nevertheless manages to reveal a whole lot more about the stage persona of one James Morrison than any mere recording of a single performance likely could. Morrison’s onstage hi-jinks were part of a concerted effort to push the envelope of what was permitted, and the inevitable conflicts with the law that they occasioned were seemingly a necessary, if costly, part of the process. In the famous Miami lewd conduct incident, the film at once partially exonerates Morrison — out of dozens and dozens of photos, none can apparently be found documenting his alleged self-exposure — and makes it abundantly clear that Morrison had long been courting this kind of response from law enforcement.
Even as When You’re Strange succeeds as a study in the social dynamics of rock stars’ anti-social behavior, it also provides us with a fresh sense of what made The Doors so popular. Robbie Krieger, Ray Manzarek, and John Densmore were and are all clearly exceptional musicians, and they fight a valiant battle to sustain the band against the whimsical nature of its shaman lead singer. And Morrison, more than virtually any other rock star, had the ultimate in bad boy charisma. He’s constantly caught looking directly at the camera, and the eye contact invariably elicits from him a radiant grin. Here’s looking at you, Jim.