The film starts with a smashed car in a ditch on a desert road. Out of the wreckage climbs Jim Morrison. The next scenes have him hitchhiking, and then suddenly he’s in a car again driving through the desert; he turns on the car radio to hear an announcer bring breaking news: “Jim Morrison, the lead singer of The Doors, was found dead in his Paris apartment this morning”. As the opening scene for a ‘film about The Doors’ it is disorientating and very strong – to have seemingly resurrected the group’s lead singer and have him in a widescreen, real-life narrative hearing of his own death. Morrison keeps on driving and then the film cuts to a burning match. What we’ve seen is a cleverly manipulated use of footage Morrison shot with the film-maker Paul Ferrara back in 1969. The film they were making was called HWY: An American Pastoral; it is 50 minutes of loose, experimental film-making, typical of the late ’60s, and has remained largely unseen for the past 40 years. The insertion of the announcement of Morrison’s death into the soundtrack of the original film at the moment when he reaches for the radio is effective, but then When You’re Strange loses its nerve. A kaleidoscopic rush of Doors images follows – some vintage surf footage indicates California, the band’s birthplace; John F Kennedy sitting in the back seat of the Dallas cavalcade – while the narrator intones “The 1960s start with a shot”, and we are firmly back in rock-documentary land.
When You’re Strange returns at intervals to the HWY footage, but a context for its appearance is never established in the 90 minute run-through of the band’s career. With the scenario of Morrison escaping from his own death forfeited, the film can only groove on the beauty of HWY’s desert landscape and the pleasure of seeing unknown footage of Morrison in the last months when he was still lean and looking good in leather pants. What another director or documentary maker would have made of the footage is hard to guess. It is tempting to imagine Morrison’s mysterious death and mystique, and the 50 minutes of film, in the hands of a more adventurous director such as Spike Jonze or Todd Haynes (who cast Cate Blanchett and Richard Gere as Bob Dylan in the ‘re-imagined’ Dylan biographical picture I’m Not There), or even Quentin Tarantino. Where would they have taken the film? What trip would they have dreamt up with Jim at the wheel? They certainly wouldn’t have circled back after such a promising start, as does director Tom DiCillo, because if any group can sustain a mind-bending ride of a film that pushes form and content way to the edge of what a rock-band documentary can be, then it’s The Doors.
They were an LA band – no, they are the LA band – and every group that’s followed them, be it Dream Syndicate, Guns N’ Roses, Jane’s Addiction or the latest hot band in their Silver Lake practice room striving for melody and meaning, is in their shadow. The Doors formed in 1965 and in the 72 months of their existence made six studio albums, of which three, The Doors, Strange Days and L.A.Woman, are rock classics. They were, crucially, a second-generation ’60s band, and like the Velvet Underground in New York and The Great Society in San Francisco, their members set out to make music in late ’65 that didn’t emulate the British Invasion, in particular The Beatles, or electrify coffee-house folk roots into Folk Rock. Instead they invented the art-rock group, bringing to bear enthusiasms such as jazz and avant-garde music, film and literature, to shatter conceptions of what constituted a mid ’60s rock band. The Doors could have made four fantastic low-selling albums like the Velvets, or imploded like The Great Society – that group’s lead singer Grace Slick taking the very weird, self-penned ‘White Rabbit’ to her next band, Jefferson Airplane – if Jim Morrison hadn’t asked each member of his band at an early rehearsal to bring a new song to the next practice session. Robby Krieger came back two days later with ‘Light My Fire’.
There’s a clip of it in When You’re Strange, taken from The Ed Sullivan Show, and it’s outrageous. Against a technicolour studio set of lurid yellow and orange, Jim Morrison presents a vision of a lead singer that would shock and amaze today, were someone of his insolence and brilliance to be allowed anywhere near prime-time TV. He is in leather pants and jacket with a plunging white shirt, black shoulder-length curls, and nothing but intensity and concentration as he delivers a ferocious live lead vocal that leaves him spent and slumped in full-body close-up. He is 23 years old, and he’d been asked by Sullivan to omit the suggestive ‘higher’ from the line “girl, we couldn’t get much higher”, but he sings it anyway and that in part became the problem with The Doors. They kept having hit singles, but Morrison wasn’t cut out to play the game. How much pop-chart success was factored in at the band’s inception is hard to tell; presumably being able to get some good gigs and score any kind of record deal was then the limit of the dream. The explosion of ‘Light My Fire’ and the success of their debut album changed everything; a rock group as unusual, and as provocative, had never hit the number-one spot on the American charts before.
The tragedy of the band since their demise in 1971 is the extent to which Jim Morrison has come to dominate the legacy. On record and in the beginning they were four equals, with Morrison having to be at his best as a singer and lyricist to hold his ground. Footage of The Soft Parade recording sessions shows a lead singer as one part of a team, at times almost helpless as the others strive to make the album. The Doors were a great band, a unique constellation of musicians drawn together in a beautiful narrative (as all good groups are) and at a notable time – keyboardist Ray Manzarek and Morrison met at UCLA film school, guitarist Robby Krieger and drummer John Densmore at a pre-hippie LA meditation class. There’s no bass player; Krieger, who is a flamenco prodigy, has been on electric guitar for just six months and plays with his fingers, Manzarek is into Bach and jazz, Densmore’s drumming is percussive and dynamic, and the lead singer is a poet wanting to name the band after cherished lines from William Blake: “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is: infinite.” The wonder is that the band lived up to this; Morrison had a grand lyrical agenda but the rest of the group are also heroes, giving the standard rock-band format its first real shake-up and writing the music to a stable of songs that are strong and lasting.
When You’re Strange has tacit support from the three remaining members of the group, although none is interviewed and there are no other contemporary interviews; the documentary relies on archival film footage, stills and a narration written by the director, Tom DiCillo, and read by Johnny Depp. The band has been burnt before by historical depiction, most noticeably in Oliver Stone’s inaccurate and sensational biographical feature film The Doors (1991). DiCillo is obviously sympathetic to the group, and he has been given access to a bounty of quality, on- and off-stage footage – a happy outcome of Morrison’s and Manzarek’s film-school days. The director’s intention is to closely weave The Doors’ story and music into the social and political upheaval of the time. Yet making correlations and connections between music – lyrics in particular – and newsreel images is always hazardous, and this is borne out early when the first strains of ‘Break On Through’ are matched to a burning American flag. Later, in a live version of ‘The End’, DiCillo cuts from Morrison singing “I’ll never look into your eyes ... again” to Martin Luther King’s face in a newspaper on the day of his assassination, and then to Robert F Kennedy dying on the floor of the Ambassador Hotel – and though contemporary events can’t be divorced from the work of artists as vital as The Doors, nor can they be linked to it as wildly as this. The questionable ability of the director to join lyric to image is further illustrated by his having weird clown faces and fairgrounds to illuminate ‘People Are Strange’, and, on the lyric “women are wicked”, by cutting to a shot of a woman coyly taking off her bra and showing her breasts.
The strained literalism extends to the narration: Depp’s voice-over is good and it’s a pleasure to hear the inflection he brings to phrases such as “Bach-tinged blues runs” or his spooky reading of the Blake lines, but what can he do with sentences as fawning and banal as “It is music for the different, the uninvited. It carries the listener into the shadowy realm of dream” or “But if the band has a surreal fairground air, it is Morrison who is the frenzied trapese artist”? The film does bring Morrison into focus, DiCillo seeing his rise and fall as the third great drama alongside the changing times and the band’s unfolding career. What was Jim like? The film has two neat little exchanges. In one, Morrison does a belting, rasping vocal in a studio only to have someone off-camera advise him: “Don’t overblow, Jim. You’ve got a long way to go.” Smiling, he replies, “Why not?” In the other, a policeman asks him to stay in a limousine because there are too many people around the car. Morrison immediately gets out. He’s the guy that can’t say no, the person who’ll always take the last drug and drink, the grinning daredevil. He’s a rock god, but he’s also recognisable as the friend you have who’ll be the first to die.
And it’s a depressing film. DiCillo stacks it with only the most confrontational and extreme footage of Morrison on stage. Given the nightmare of the newsreel images, the odd interspersions of the HWY footage, and the need to fast-track all of this into 90 minutes, it leaves little time to tell the tale of the joy and kicks of being in such an extraordinary band. There’s always the music, though, and towards the end of the film comes the magic drift of notes heralding ‘Riders on the Storm’, as evocative and magical a seven minutes of music as has ever been committed to tape in the history of rock’n’roll. There is the soothing throb, the long gorgeous keyboard solo … I see night-time beaches and the moon over the sea: everyone has a flicker sheet of images to this song. And DiCillo? Napalm, jungles on fire and screaming children. Break on through to the other side, man.
There is nowhere quite like The Monthly. We are told that we live in a time of diminished attention spans; a time where the 24-hour-news-cycle has produced a collective desire for hot takes and brief summaries of the news and ideas that effect us. But we don’t believe it. The need for considered, reflective, long-form journalism has never been greater, and for almost 20 years, that’s what The Monthly has offered, from some of our finest writers.
That kind of quality writing costs money, and requires the support of our readers. Your subscription to The Monthly allows us to be the home for the best, most considered, most substantial perspectives on the state of the world. It’s Australia’s only current affairs magazine, an indispensable home for cultural commentary, criticism and reviews, and home to personal and reflective essays that celebrate and elevate our humanity.
The Monthly doesn’t just comment on our culture, our society and our politics: it shapes it. And your subscription makes you part of that.
Select your digital subscription