Theatrical Review: WHEN YOU’RE STRANGE

James Oster

by: James Oster
April 9th, 2010

Rating: 5/5

Writer/Director: Tom DiCillo

The Doors of perception have been opened. On a lonely highway in the middle of nowhere, a young man seems to be hitching a ride to who knows where. If you are all the wiser, you’d know that this wanderer with his long brown hair and his untamed beard is Jim Morrison. Soon, this passenger is in the driver’s seat and he himself hears of his own passing. This old footage of the real Morrison has been given a home as a sort of centerpiece for Tom DiCillo’s WHEN YOU’RE STRANGE, a documentary of sorts. And what I mean by that is, this is a living, breathing and absolutely captivating vision of The Doors and the legacy of their music. You won’t find a series of talking heads, telling us what The Doors should mean to us. You quite literally see the band recording or playing live, and what a sight it is.

Yes, I’m a fan of the music. The magic that Jim Morrison, Ray Manzarek, Robby Krieger and John Densmore created forty years ago is more than just a cool pop culture reference. The music has inspired many copycats, but has never truly been equaled. To really capture the essence of The Doors seems an impossible cinematic task. Yet somehow DiCillo has managed to piece together old footage of the band to create an absolutely brilliant bit of movie magic. This is a rich tapestry of drama, music, and pain that transcends the typical documentary feature. While some may prefer a more straightforward approach, it was a much more emotional ride than to simply talk about the music, as opposed to truly see and feel its power. While much of this may be very familiar to Doors fans, the journey is just as intoxicating whether you know the stories or not.

Now let’s talk about the narration. In many ways, this feels as far from a documentary as one possibly could. And when you add the narration that creeps in and out as we are told the story from an invisible voice, it feels more like a foreign film, a funny, energetic, yet tragic tale. And with Johnny Depp doing the work, it feels right at home with DiCillo’s vision. Somehow, he seems to understand his main characters, especially Jim. This is a key factor that some have expressed disappointment in, while others seem to find it the perfect touch. I am of the latter. Johnny creates a warm and safe environment that makes the story all that more fascinating. I’m sure another choice may not have worked quite as well; after all, DiCillo himself had originally done it and earned a few complaints. And while I can’t really comment on that as I did not see the earlier version, Depp certainly captured the fundamental nature of Morrison just fine.

There is a rich and haunting history in WHEN YOU’RE STRANGE. Its colors are shining bright, even when the footage is raw and dated. But the crown jewel here is the wonderful footage from a student film Morrison had worked on called HWY. Many in the audience wondered who exactly that was hitchhiking along a desert road. Surely it couldn’t be Jim Morrison. But it is. I knew it was Jim, but the footage is so extremely well preserved that it looks much too new to be images of that same man who passed away back in 1971. This footage is interwoven into the story of The Doors so well that it almost feels like they hired some actor to portray him. But it’s the real deal. It adds another dimension to WHEN YOU’RE STRANGE, that combines the art and the passion of the music.

While it would certainly help to be a fan of this legendary band, I think there is so much here that is visually exciting that even the non-initiated will find pleasure in this feast of image and sound. While hard core fans may not learn a whole lot, the footage from HWY and the rock and roll soundtrack will certainly inspire and ignite the fire inside. The doors are open to what is an early entry as one of the best films of the year.

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