"When You're Strange": The real Jim Morrison

The Doors—from left to right: Jim Morrison (singer), Robby Krieger (guitarist), Ray Manzarek (keyboardist) and John Densmore (drummer)—posed for publicity shots on the boardwalk in Venice, California in 1969. Photo by Henry Diltz.
The Doors—from left to right: Jim Morrison (singer), Robby Krieger (guitarist), Ray Manzarek (keyboardist) and John Densmore (drummer)—posed for publicity shots on the boardwalk in Venice, California in 1969. Photo by Henry Diltz.
THIS ARTICLE WAS WRITTEN BY ANDREW O'HEHIR AND PUBLISHED BY SALON.com ON APRIL 9, 2010.

During a concert recording heard on the soundtrack of Tom DiCillo's trippy, fascinating documentary "When You're Strange," Doors lead singer Jim Morrison demands of his audience, "Would anybody in here like to see my genitals?" When the response to that rhetorical question has died down, Morrison continues: "I don't think there should even be a president, man. I think we should have total democracy."

It would be easy to conclude that the Lizard King was massively wasted on booze or hash or acid or some other drug cocktail of choice on that occasion, and that moreover he was kind of a self-important idiot. Both things are very likely true, but the intellectual thread that connects Jim Morrison's cock to the White House is not as flimsy as it appears. However you feel about the Doors and their music—and DiCillo's generous and substantial film leaves room for varying interpretations—the band had an outsize cultural impact, embodying the Dionysian macho-rebel spirit of late-'60s white (male) American youth with psilocybin intensity.

At this point, documentaries about '60s rock bands constitute their own genre, and it's frequently a tiresome one: Clips of civil-rights protests and Vietnam firefights, a highlight tour of assassinations and campus uprisings. There's a little bit of all that in "When You're Strange," but the film stands out for several reasons. There's the total absence of talking-head interviews with grizzled scenesters (or any other present-day footage); the cool and measured narration by Johnny Depp (clearly the perfect choice); the direction by DiCillo, a hard-luck indie veteran making his first documentary. "When You're Strange" is also free of the "fair use" copyright restrictions that plague so many rock docs. All the surviving band members signed off on the project, and you'll hear all the major Doors hits (from "Break on Through" and "Light My Fire" to "L.A. Woman" and "Riders on the Storm") in this film, which has been timed to accompany a 13-song soundtrack release from Rhino Entertainment.

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