Blu-Review: When You’re Strange: A Film About The Doors

Directed By Tom DeCillo
Starring The Doors, Johnny Depp (Narrator)

The subtitle of When You’re Strange is something of a misnomer. Less a film about The Doors and more a biographic art film centred on mop-haired rock icon Jim Morrison, director Tom Decillo eschews interviews and instead assembles an impressive collection of archive footage (both familiar and unseen) to craft a rather captivating but light-on-info documentary. In 1965, a band called The Doors would emerge whose music would capture the spirit of the emerging counterculture. A band whose songs and talent were equalled and overshadowed only by the controversial antics of their lead singer, who would soon drive himself to an untimely death at the age of 27. Now Tom Decillo’s documentary attempts to offer a glimpse of the man behind the icon.

The problem with DeCillo’s film is that the core purpose of a great documentary – to provide new or specific insight into its subject – completely evades its grasp. When You’re Strange is undoubtedly a good film that’s at times raw, occasionally poignant, often funny and always entertaining. But it plays an awful lot like a Cliffs Notes recap of The Doors’ story: a cursory synopsis that glides alongside Morrison’s career, casting a distant sideways glance, singling out the major, familiar events and facts in the band’s history without finding anything substantial or new to say. In fact, it’s certainly strange just how precariously close to Oliver Stone’s biopic it often skews.

Echoing a scene from the film where reporters and fans swarm Morrison as his bandmates sit completely unnoticed a few feet away, Decillo is sadly guilty of the same oversight. While during one scene the filmmaker casts a music critic’s eye on the talents of musicians John Densmore, Robby Krieger and Ray Manzarek, it feels like a rare aberration in an otherwise sparse, factual and Morrison-centric film. Which is unfortunate, as that fleeting insight into the overlooked band members provokes the film’s most interesting unfamiliar moments, conjuring up an immense new-found respect and admiration for the abilities of musicians who’ll forever live in the lofty shadow of their departed lead singer. Including retrospective interviews with the band could have helped dilute the film’s sense of familiarity, potentially offering up new nuggets of truth for fans of The Doors by exploring further afield than the focal point of Morrison.

Still, it’s hard to fault Decillo for being fascinated by Morrison, and the collected footage only reinforces Morrison as a mesmerizingly charismatic performer at best and a hypnotic train wreck at his worst. Decillo is admirably non-committal in his depiction of the star, presenting a balanced assembly of footage mostly without embellishment from Johnny Depp’s sedate, storybook narration. He allows the viewer to assess Morrison’s myth for themselves as we see his quieter, solemn, poetic moments alongside his drunken, stoned (and often criminal) buffoonery. In impressively candid archive clips, the film charts his progression from shy, talented newcomer to untamed rock legend through to his last flailing days on stage. Of course, a band documentary would be nothing without the music, and there’s a wonderful array of performance footage from the band’s TV appearances, on-stage performances and – most interestingly – in the studio during the creative process. Seeing and hearing such incredible music being made is sure to rekindle love for their songs and only reaffirms how talented these guys truly were.

Of most interest to fans especially will be the scenes from HWY: An American Pastoral, an unreleased art film/road movie that Morrison and Paul Ferrara made for Jim to star in. Decillo uses the footage the great effect as a wonderful framing device, eerily signposting the various points of Morrison’s life. The footage has been lovingly restored to fantastic effect and it’s an amazing, surreal experience to see what appears like recently-shot footage of a resurrected, scruffy-bearded Jim Morrison on-screen – expect to do a double-take after you assume Decillo snagged a lookalike for a few new scenes.

Whether your opinion of the self-proclaimed “Lizard King” is one of a sage shaman trapped inside the body of a musical genius or a boozy, pretentious brat desperately craving attention, you’re sure to find something in Decillo’s film to confirm or deflate your standpoint. When Your Strange is an engrossing documentary that offers up a riveting glimpse into the life of a band that left an astounding impact in music history. Unfortunately, though their story is a great one, it’s one we’ve heard told before, and Tom Decillo finds no new knowledge to impart, hitting all the same beats and waypoints of Oliver Stone’s biopic with only a cursory, surface-level recap of the band’s history. Fans will certainly want to check out the film for the unearthed, restored footage, but it’s a documentary that will prove most worthwhile for those previously unfamiliar with The Doors. If you fall into the latter category though, you’re in for an electrifying treat.

On the Blu-ray:

On the audio side of things, the Blu-ray offers up a choice of English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio or English PCM Stereo 2.0. Both sound great, if not as spectacular as some concert films and music documentaries, but the 5.1 track will surely be the choice du jour, offering up a more involved use of the surrounds for ambience and a slightly more impressive audio experience. The music itself sounds pristine and wonderful, while the few instances of dialogue sound solid and clear. Depp’s narration is offered with equal clarity, though often sounds slightly sedate and may require a slight volume tweak to hear after the louder delivery of The Doors’ tracks.

Through no fault of the Blu-ray, the video quality shifts wildly depending on the footage shown; much of the archive footage that comprises the film is from 50 year old TV video broadcasts and home movies that, even at their best, won’t exactly look astonishing in hi-def. Still, the Blu-ray put out by Univeral’s indiVISION label surely marks the best that the film and the archive footage itself has ever looked. While the home movie footage isn’t exactly built to astound, the unearthed footage from HWY looks magnificent on Blu-ray. Clearly restored with care and adoration, it looks beautiful, and the jump in clarity from archive footage to the HWY scenes only adds to that bizarre, surreal experience of suddenly seeing Jim Morrison alive and well on-screen.

In fact, it’s a shame that entire restored film wasn’t included on the Blu-ray, which would’ve been an added, priceless treat for The Doors fans. As it stands, the special features on the Blu-ray are limited to the film’s trailer (and a pre-menu trailer for fellow music documentary It Might Get Loud). A lone English subtitle track is also included. Visual and aurally though, it’s an impressive disc that gives a lovely presentation for those interested in the film.