I caught Tom DiCillo‘s When You’re Strange, a 90-minute doc about Jim Morrison and The Doors, inside a viewing booth at the Park City Marriott early this afternoon. I also saw Ondi Timoner‘s We Live in Public, a doc about ’90s internet pioneer Josh Harris. A study and a history of internet obsession, Timoner’s film is easily the more thoughtful and provocative of the two. But DeCillo’s is more engaging because Morrison is still a fascinating wild man, and at the same time a little more average-human than he seemed in the Stone pic.
The short reaction to When You’re Strange is (a) it’s a much more perceptive dive into the legend of the Doors than Oliver Stone‘s film was, (b) it’s in love with Doors music (which I feel is a very good thing); (c) it has a good amount of heretofore unseen footage of Morrison and the band; but (d) it’s stymied time and again by DeCillo’s trite narration. And I mean “give me a fucking break” trite.
There has to be some way to recount the turnovers and disturbances of the hallucinatory ’60s without sounding like Tom Brokaw. You have to write and talk about those times with a sense of psychedelic impressionism. Or you have to talk about them like Peter Fonda did in The Limey — i.e., with subdued feeling and authority. I can only report that I began to go crazy listening to DeCillo’s litany of pat cliches. It’s not that the narration gets it “wrong” per se, but it makes one of the most electric and tumultuous times in American history sound so damn tidy and sorted out…almost vanilla.
And I didn’t like the voice of the narrator either. (I don’t know who it is, but he sounds like an ad agency guy who hasn’t done enough and hasn’t read enough.) It should have been narrated by someone with a hung-over voice, like Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now. Speaking like Michael Herr in Dispatches, maybe, because the ’60s were nothing if not a war. A voice that sounds like it knows from strangeness and pot and other-ness, a little shade of the weird and the fanciful.
Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek has said he’s had no input into the film, but that he’s seen it and likes it, calling it “a tale of American shamanism” with a touch of the “supernatural”. He says there’s also some rare footage in there that even stumped the Doors archivist. That’s all true as far as it goes. I don’t want to sound dismissive of this film, but it occasionally irritated the fuck out of me.
Manzarek told Billboard earlier this year that When You’re Strange is “the anti-Oliver Stone… the true story of the Doors.” Fine. Close enough.