By Gregory Crofton
“I notice that when people are joking they are usually dead serious, and when they’re dead serious it’s usually pretty funny,” says lead singer Jim Morrison in the “The Doors – When You’re Strange,” a documentary from 2009 that I recently watched for a second and third time.
Directed and written by Tom DiCillo (Johnny Seude, Living in Oblivion) and produced by Dick Wolf, creator of the Law & Order franchise, this music doc was made to be seen in a theater, but alas it saw only limited release in L.A. and New York. You can read about its botched sales and distribution plan in this in-depth interview with DiCillo at Stereo Embers.
Also PBS broadcast the film on television (American Masters) before it hit theaters, further limiting its potential to rope in a real audience. That’s probably why the naked cliff dive by Morrison near end of film took me by surprise. Those frames must not have aired on PBS when I watched it 11 years ago.
The Doors officially became a band in 1965 and helped usher in the cultural revolution of the late 60s, which meant lots of acid, free love and more open minds. Its first real gig was as the house band at the Whisky a Go Go, where an Elektra record executive heard them play and soon offered them a three-record deal.
Their first album, and the four after that, were produced by Paul A. Rothchild on a 4-track, new technology at the time, and one reason Doors’ recordings sound state-of-the-art even today. Their first single “Break on Through (to the Other Side)” reached No. 106 on the charts, quickly followed by “Light My Fire,” which hit No. 1 in a hurry because of AM radio airplay.
Though the members of the band shared songwriting credits equally, the drama of The Doors is really Morrison’s story. He partied hard, abusing drugs and alcohol, celebrating life as he flirted with death. Morrison could also be paradoxical about the attention he received from fans. Sometimes he clearly needed it, other times he ran from it.
Dicillo’s film is flawlessly crafted, culled from hundreds of hours of performance and behind-the-scenes clips. Some of the best parts of the doc are its soundtrack (particularly “Riders on the Storm” set to images of The Vietnam War) and that makes its limited theatrical release a true loss. I remember seeing Oliver Stone’s “The Doors” (1991) and how we all ran to the theater, then celebrated the band for days.
Dicillo also smartly made use of restored clips from “HWY: An American Pastoral,” a 52-minute film that Morrison and friends shot in 1970. Whether the person in this film is Jim Morrison (it is), or an actor, ultimately hurt the distribution of the documentary (read more on that issue in the Stereo Embers interview above).
“The Doors – When You’re Strange” is now streaming on Amazon Prime. If you’ve got some version of a home theater, turn up the volume and let Morrison and The Doors take you on a “Moonlight Drive.”
Morrison — a huge fan of Elvis Presley, and later Frank Sinatra — did it man! Think those leather pants, that belt and hair cut happened by accident? He got exactly what he wanted (save the horrible death).
And you can too because you’re … ALIVE!