Sundance Review: ‘When You’re Strange’

01.20.09 9 years ago


I need an explanation for this: Tom DiCillo tracks down a wealth of never-before-seen footage of The Doors. He decides that he’s going to build a documentary largely around that footage, eschewing traditional talking-heads documentary naval gazing. 

It’s an admirable enough goal, to let the mystique of The Doors either rise or fall on their actual performances and on unguarded moments from their 1966-to-1971 run.

Then DiCillo goes and undermines his film’s strengths in the most excruciating way possible, over-stuffing the film with a voiceover he both wrote and narrates. The voiceover is a mixture of oft-repeated factoids about the band, unsubstantiated and unsourced speculation, remedial (and again unsubstantiated) psychoanalysis of Jim Morrison and period details that never get any deeper than “The ’60s Were a Tumultuous Time…” platitudes. 

The resulting film, “When You’re Strange,” is one of my biggest Sundance disappointments so far.

[More after the bump…]

If DiCillo had just been able to hold back and leave the self-indulgence to Lizard King Morrison, “When You’re Strange” would have worked just fine. 

Look, as ways to spend 100 minutes go, there are many worse than listening to The Doors’ greatest hits and watching Morrison spasm around the stage. Even the stuff any half-way Doors fan has seen before — the Ed Sullivan or Smothers Brothers performances — are welcome reminders of an artistry and stagecraft matched by few subsequent bands (if any). And DiCillo is respectful enough to mostly let whole songs play out from start to finish (though he sometimes blathers over them). DiCillo lets most songs play out, even if he just uses one classic track after another as vehicles for montages. 

Montages aside, DiCillo’s storytelling isn’t just linear, it’s episodically linear. The voiceover is all told in the present tense and follows a this-happened-then-this-happed-then-this-happened structure (i.e. “Morrison is no long just drinking, he’s descovered cocaine), recounting the same events that were featured in the Oliver Stone film. It’s an E! True Hollywood Story or VH1 Behind-the-Music treatment. 

DiCillo’s a fan, but he’s a gushing fan, not a fan with anything insightful or reflective to say. 

Morrison, in case you didn’t know, was a poet and his genius was in his ability to connect with audiences. Really? Wow. And he was inspired by William Blake. Really? Wow. And Mr Mojo Risin is an anagram of Jim Morrison? Oh come on. In terms of basic facts, the documentary didn’t contain a single revelation I didn’t know. DiCillo has a couple insights into the musicianship of the group and the things that made their sound different, but that’s almost an afterthought, a single scene, really.

Mostly, DiCillo is wedging The Doors into their historical milieu, which means he has to introduce all of required ’60s themes, from Kennedy’s assassination to Vietnam to the birth of the counterculture, tidbits accompanied by still pictures and video so familiar it’s practically clip-art at this point. By the time he got to 1968 and used images of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy accompanied by gunshot sound effects, I’d lost all patience. That’s all still better than showing a close-up of an extinguished match to illustrate Morrison burning out. 


“When You’re Strange” would make a good bonus feature, a supplement to a Doors CD reissue, or maybe accompanying a new DVD of the Stone movie. But it should never be showcased on its own. I know DiCillo is a Sundance favorite for his narrative work, but somebody on the screening committee should have at least kept this dud out of competition.

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