SBIFF: Tom DiCillo’s ‘When You’re Strange’ looks back at The Doors

02.06.10 9 years ago 2 Comments

I couldn’t make my schedule work this year for the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, but I’d been talking to the team who handles publicity for the festival about attending or covering it in some way, and when I couldn’t swing it, an interesting alternative presented itself.

Meet Dustin Hucks.

Dustin’s a Santa Barbara local with strong ties to Austin, a city that is obviously very near and dear to my heart.  Last year, he ran from Burbank to Lubbock, TX to raise money for the American Cancer Society, something I’m fairly sure I could never pull off.  So he’s got that going for him, and I think you’ll agree, he’s not the typical online geek by any means.  Most of them couldn’t run 500 feet if they were being chased by the undead, myself included.

He’s also a screenwriter and a film fan, and since he was already planning to attend the festival, the idea of him sending reviews and interviews to me so I could publish them here at Motion/Captured seemed like a win-win situation.  It’s going to give me (and you, as well) a chance to get to know him, and it’ll give us a look at the programming at the festival this year, and hopefully some solid interviews as well.

His first review is for Tom DiCillo’s documentary about The Doors, which I missed when it played Sundance in 2009.  I grew up on The Doors and went through a prolonged Jim Morrison phase, so I’m curious what new information DiCillo’s film might have for a fan like me.  I think I like the Oliver Stone movie more than anyone associated with the band, but more as a fan’s idea of what the Doors were like than as a real record of the band.  I always laughed at the way Ray Manzarek described the film to me, and his disappointment with it.  “It’s a white powder movie about a psychedelic band.”  Perfect.

Dustin… take it away: 

“Review:  ‘When You”re Strange’

When I was thirteen, I heard ‘Touch Me.’  It was my first experience with The Doors, and it didn”t take.  I love the song now, but at the time I just wasn”t there yet.  My grandparents listened to Perry Como, and I was getting that crooner vibe which, you know… few thirteen year old boys are going to dig.  It was brassy, flamboyant, and just seemed silly.  I don”t remember hearing another one of their songs until I was seventeen, and the experience this time was wholly transformative.  My buddy Mike, who was significantly more music cool than I was at the time, had one of their box sets in his disc changer.  It was ‘When the Music”s Over,’ and it was beautiful.  I immediately recognized the voice.  Crooning, growling, or otherwise – Jim Morrison is Jim Morrison.  I was hooked after that.  I listened to everything they created that I could get my hands on.  I credit The Doors with expanding my listening palette in general.

The short existence of The Doors has been covered at length in almost every medium, and I”ve seen most of what has been produced to this point.  The two things I”ve always felt weren”t present in the majority of films covering the band were Jim”s humanity and, well… the band.  When I heard about Tom Dicillo”s ‘When You”re Strange,’ I was certainly interested, but reading quotes from the keyboardist of The Doors, Ray Manzarek, really got me excited about catching the documentary.  He called this the true story of The Doors, the anti-Oliver Stone film.  Personally, the latter seemed like a promising start for any fan who suffered through the Stone film.

The documentary is beautifully narrated by Johnny Depp, having lent his services after Sundance fans counted Dicillo”s original narration duties as less than stellar.  It opens with each band member stepping out of an airplane terminal and identifying themselves to an unseen interviewer. 

“What is your name, what do you do?”

The three instrumentalists answer and move on – but then there is Morrison.

“What is your name?

“I”m Jim.”

“What do you do?”

He stares at a point in space for a moment, finally turning his attention to the camera, and smiles like the devil.

If you”re expecting much more than The Lizard King, Mr. Mojo Risin, Jimbo – you get a little.  The formula doesn”t stray far from much of what you”ve seen in most documentaries on the band.  It touches on Jim”s youth, and the disconnect he felt from his family, particularly his Naval Officer father.  There are videos of Morrison in his teens, and while there is innocence there, that edge that will eventually consume him is already peeking from behind his eyes.  There really is no new insight into the formation of the band, but a refreshing amount of time is spent on giving John Densmore, Ray Manzarek, and Robby Kreiger more life and substance than much of what I”ve seen in the past.  They were an eclectic group of musicians, and their unique sound is such a monumentally important part of what made The Doors so iconic.

As they”re very quickly pushed from obscurity to superstardom, yes, Jim Morrison cannot help but be the magnet that draws your attention.  That is what makes Tom Dicillo”s documentary such a pleasant surprise – he”s made an honest effort in showing you who the rest of the band is as a group trying to rein in a lead singer burning both ends of the candle, but also as individuals dealing with their own personal anxieties and hurt as they watch their friend fall apart.  Under the mysticism that”s been built around The Doors, it”s easy to forget that these four were just kids in their twenties when their star began to rise, living in one of the most politically and culturally unstable periods in the history of The United States.  Dicillo does an excellent job of painting this picture, and as a fan of the entire band from top to bottom, it meant a lot to see someone touch these elements in a new and engaging way.

The common theme through the entire documentary, for me at least, was missed opportunity.  There were parts of the film, the small ones I spoke of earlier, where Jim Morrison isn”t a leaping, crashing, hip thrusting musical shaman.  Candid video of Morrison laughing, and smiling – really smiling – are jarring and sort of heartbreaking.  It”s romantic to say people like Jim Morrison simply weren”t meant to walk this earth; that their star burns too bright, and thus they”re doomed to self-destruction.

One of the most touching moments in the documentary is Jim sitting backstage at a concert in Long Island, tending to the injuries of a female fan struck by a chair at one of his many shortened performances.  There is genuine concern in his eyes as he dabs blood from her face, and checks a gash in her hairline.  These are the moments when The Lizard King falls away like a mask, and you see a real young man who seemed to genuinely connect with people around him.  I believe that guy could have been saved.  The film gently but clearly shows these missed opportunities to do so.  There is no condemnation in ‘When You”re Strange’; these lost moments are simply on screen to behold.

This is a winning effort on the part of Tom Dicillo.  He leads the viewer down a familiar path, but provides enough in the way of detours and winding offroads to give a fan of The Doors more than the expected Morrison-centric formula that tends to dominate.  There are few new revelations, and Jim Morrison mostly remains the steadfastly primal, poetic beast in leather pants I always see in my head, but there is enough fresh perspective to make ‘When You”re Strange’ a welcome addition to the film canon of The Doors.”

Thanks, Dustin. It’s funny you say your first exposure to The Doors was “Touch Me.”  I always think of that as Jim’s “Fat Vegas Elvis” song, in now way indicitive of their work as a whole.  The Perry Como comparison is not incorrect, I think.

I’ll have another Santa Barbara Film Festival review by Dustin in just a few, and hopefully we’ll see more of them coming in all week long.

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