When You’re Strange

Though vastly improved since its Sundance bow, Jim Morrison doc remains a rather unenlightened trip.

When You’re Strange” was originally reviewed by Variety on Jan. 17, 2009, at the Sundance Film Festival. Click here to read the original review.

Though vastly improved since its Sundance premiere, Tom DiCillo’s documentary ode to reptilian rocker Jim Morrison and his mellower bandmates in the Doors remains a rather unenlightened trip. The new version (which has grossed around $150,000 since its April 9 limited release), running only three minutes shorter but seeming far more brisk, dispenses with the filmmaker’s own disastrous voiceovers, substituting them with pared-down commentary from Doors fan Johnny Depp. While still drawing exclusively from photos and footage of the late ’60s and early ’70s (Morrison died in 1971), pic has been made more chronological and coherent. Following its theatrical run, it’ll break on through to DVD.

As before, the docu opens in the desert with shots from Morrison’s short film “HWY,” creatively repurposing them to suggest that the pop star, tuned in to car radio reports of his own death, has somehow survived his overdose to live out still more strange days.

From here, DiCillo steers the straightforward narrative through a vast assemblage of archival material, using Depp’s sometimes silly narration (Morrison is a “rock ‘n’ roll poet, dangerous and highly intelligent”) to sketch the band’s six-year run, while failing to make a case for its greatness. “Strange” doesn’t even try to situate the Doors’ output within the context of other psychedelic pop of the period, the better perhaps to imply that the group came out of nowhere, which it surely didn’t.

DiCillo does incorporate loads of historical footage, most strikingly to the tune of “The End,” as seismic late-’60s events — political assassinations, rock-star overdoses, the shootings at Kent State and the election of Richard Nixon — appear reflected in the band’s swirlingly apocalyptic groove. Missing, alas, is any sense of what distinguished the Doors’ music — for better and worse — from other downbeat pop art of the time. So, too, Morrison’s bandmates — John Densmore, Robby Krieger and Ray Manzarek — are scarcely if ever delineated.

Pic’s primo footage of recording sessions, concert performances and various backstage trips has been seen before in Doors musicvideo compilations, but the music, even from disparate sources, sounds pleasingly bottom-heavy in this mix. Indeed, the strength of the soundtrack makes DiCillo’s pre-release decision to reduce the number of groan-inducing V.O. interruptions all the more appreciable.

When You're Strange

Production: A Wolf Films/Strange Pictures production, in association with Rhino Entertainment. (International sales: Rhino, Burbank, Calif.) Produced by Peter Jankowski, John Beug, Jeff Jampol, Dick Wolf. Executive producer, Bill Gutentag. Directed, written by Tom DiCillo.

Crew: Camera (DV), Paul Ferrara; editors, Mickey Blythe, Kevin Krasny. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 17, 2009. Running time: 88 MIN.

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