Correction to This Article
An earlier version of this story incorrecty named the PBS series as "American Experience." It's actually called "American Masters." This story has since been updated.

'When You're Strange' looks at Doors, Morrison with fresh sensibility, footage

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Mr. Mojo rises all the time, or he tries to. Jim Morrison, shirtless and arms outstretched, is still a dorm-room poster, sort of like the philosopher-stoner's decorative crucifix. The flowers and poems still collect at his Paris grave site. The music of the Doors eternally conjures up an apocalyptically cool Los Angeles vibe.

And to think, if Morrison were alive, he'd be 66 and guest-mentoring on "American Idol" or something. Perish the thought. Soon enough (next year), it will be four decades since Morrison died in a bathtub. More startling, somehow, is that it's been almost 20 years since Val Kilmer played Morrison in Oliver Stone's mediocre biopic, "The Doors."

Filmmaker Tom DiCillo's "When You're Strange: A Film About the Doors" cannot lay claim to any new thoughts about (or meaning to) the Doors' 54-month journey together in the late 1960s and early '70s -- a journey that, we are told by narrator Johnny Depp, resulted in 80 million records sold. "When You're Strange" made the film-circuit rounds last year and has its TV debut Wednesday night on PBS's "American Masters."

What DiCillo has (and, really, all anyone wants from '60s rockumentaries anymore) is lots and lots of terrific footage, much of it previously unseen. The Doors, whose members met in UCLA film school, were nothing if not well filmed. There are also pristine and arresting outtakes from Morrison's own stab at filmmaking, a 1969 arthouse project called "HWY: An American Pastoral." So clean is this print of "HWY" that viewers at film festivals interpreted it as DiCillo's freshly filmed reenactment of Morrison's druggy descent into the metaphorical desert. (Nope, that's actually Morrison, in his own film.)

"When You're Strange" is apparently the product of a rare detente in post-Doors relations among the band's surviving members and the Morrison estate, and it aims to add scope and definition to the typical Icarus story of fame and ego (and substance abuse, and the Miami indecent-exposure arrest) in which every Doors biographical project gets mired.

Although "When You're Strange" is loaded with hokey statements about the '60s youth movement (Depp's narration bogs down with such lines as "This much is true: You can't burn out if you're not on fire"), it does succeed in looking at the Doors with a fresh sensibility.

It also takes time to talk about the music -- how there was no bass guitar, and how they made up for that with John Densmore's drum style and the jazz-trained Ray Manzarek's dual keyboards, and how Robby Krieger's flamenco-esque guitar stylings further defined the unmistakable sound. (Point being, it wasn't all Morrison, not by a long stretch.)

"Fact is, the music is strange," Depp tells us. "It is music for the different, the uninvited. It carries the listener into the shadowy realm of a dream."

If, like me, you find most efforts to lionize Morrison to be rather tedious exercises in poet-rock mythology, "When You're Strange" offers a more realistic telling of the fast track to fame. If nothing else, the footage is an absorbing visual voyage into late-'60s American life -- populated as it is with TWA airliners, bouffanted publicists, Standard filling stations and gawky teenagers in chunky eyewear who are all reaching out to touch Morrison.

"I don't like the Beee-atles," one teenager proclaims in a Noo-Yawk accent. "The Dawahs are much betta."

When You're Strange: A Film About the Doors, (90 minutes) airs at 9 p.m. Wednesday on WETA and MPT.

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