Eagle Rock Entertainment // 2010 // 96 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // July 10th, 2010
"If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is: infinite." -- William Blake
The long anticipated retort to the sensationalist and factually erroneous Oliver Stone adaptation -- at least from the band's perspective -- When You're Strange features previously unseen footage chronicling the seminal rock band from its inception to the tragic death of their front man, Jim Morrison. Fans of the band will be in archival heaven.
This journey into the world of the legendary rock quartet uncovers previously unseen footage of the band during their heyday. Recording six albums in five years, their dominance in music cut short by the tragic death of Jim Morrison, When You're Strange explores the early history of the band and chronicles the self-destructive decline of Morrison into drugs, alcohol, and distress.
Near the beginning of the film, we see a vintage clip of the band arriving at an airport; each member asked their name and occupation. When asked his occupation, Jim replies "Uh..." and smiles impishly into the camera -- a cat caught eating a mouse. If nothing else, this simple archival footage captures Morrison at his most recognizable: a devilish flurry of creativity and depression; a flame burning hot and furious; a man using the fuel of an entire lifetime in the span of a few short years. Dead by 27, he was a child living a life few adults dared; a contradiction of furious emotion and isolation, in a dichotomy of love and loneliness.
It is impossible to discuss The Doors without talking about the life, times, and death of Morrison. His visage inexorably intertwined with the rock 'n' roll cultural zeitgeist; his face and voice iconic, transcending generations. Understandably, When You're Strange is mostly about Jim Morrison: his early childhood, his college years, his introverted shyness giving way to a furious and violent on-stage persona that ebbed into his private life like a leaking bulkhead. As a band, Ray Manzarek, John Densmore, and Robby Krieger continued to play on without their leader, but in the realm of public perception, The Doors died with Morrison.
Narrated in a cool, detached monotone by actor Johnny Depp, When You're Strange aims to correct perceived inaccuracies in Oliver Stone's biopic, The Doors. The film interweaves a by-the-book autobiographical timeline of Jim Morrison and The Doors with segments of the 1969 experimental short film HWY: An American Pastoral -- a surreal, hallucinogenic 1960s road trip through the American desert starring Morrison himself. It is more than a little reminiscent of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and having Depp at the microphone certainly helps. Academically, When You're Strange is The Doors 101; hard core fans will know the dates and places referenced by heart. The appeal for such devotees will be the literal treasure trove of archival footage compiled within; much of it completely unreleased, intimate and private portrayals of the band in their formative years.
When You're Strange has a vibe that could best be described -- clichéd as it may be -- as The Doors themselves: jazzy, bluesy, dark and ominous; a cloud of dust rolling across the desert, the rattle of an empty whiskey bottle. Assembled from a vivid montage of home video, newsreels, in-studio recording sessions, and concert footage, the film has a strong cohesion of narrative that often eludes biographical documentaries, striking a perfect balance between loving homage and historical details. Refreshingly absent from the film are any modern interviews and retrospective observations; no talking head footage, no editorializing by friends, band mates or critics. It is an unusual approach to documentary filmmaking, but it works well.
Perhaps the biggest retort to Stone's dramatic adaptation of Morrison's life is the distinction between Jim Morrison the poet and Jimbo, the raging alcoholic terror who would dominate the stage in later years. In the eyes of many critics, The Doors paints a picture of a death-obsessed, borderline sociopath, all violence and booze. When You're Strange paints the picture of a different man: raucous and disruptive to be sure, but profoundly damaged, bearing more resemblance to a Beat poet than a rock icon; a wandering troubadour of America, lost and lonely. We observe an inexorable decline of facility and function in Morrison so profound his band mates simply cannot wrap their head around it. We watch them watching Jim; we see the growing anxiety and unease in their eyes, the unspoken concern on their faces, mute observers to the spectacle that is Jimbo. He is the perpetual elephant in the room, passed out in the middle of the floor.
When You're Strange: A Film About The Doors offers up a solid, if not particularly groundbreaking treatment on Blu-ray. Being a film comprised entirely of 8mm and 16mm film, news reels, and scratchy archival footage, print damage is par for the course, but the overall experience of the film is clean and sharp, with strong black and white levels; not the razor-sharp fidelity we expect from high-definition source material, but still quite satisfactory. Audio comes in two flavors: a DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio lossless track and a PCM stereo track. Both are surprisingly strong, but one could simply not abide a rock documentary to be anything less than superb in the audio department. Bass response is strongest during the musical cut scenes. Narration is clean and audible, but the overall mix is slightly inconsistent, requiring volume adjustment throughout to catch some of the softer archival moments. Like the video, the audio source material has a dramatic impact on the overall quality of the presentation, so some hissing and popping is to be expected. The Master Audio is the way to go, with reasonable action in the rear channels, but the PCM track holds its own a lot better than I expected.
In terms of extras, we get a singular feature: an interview with Admiral George C. Morrison, USN (Ret); the father of Jim Morrison. Fans will realize the significance of this feature, as Jim's father has staunchly refused to speak publicly about his son's life. According to the packaging, this is an exclusive interview; definitely a nice inclusion. A fold-out poster also comes packaged with the liner notes.
The secondary narrative, a final spiritual road trip (if you like) is a puzzling inclusion, cutting into the documentary aspect of the film. I understand thematically why it was included, but it's a bit weird for my tastes; too heavy-handed in its imagery. Take for example the close-up of a match, burning bright before being blown out at exactly the moment the radio announces the death of Jim Morrison. ((Cringe)).
A uniquely stylized documentary assembled from a remarkable treasure trove of footage, When You're Strange: A Film About The Doors should delight fans of the band and casual onlookers alike. I never counted myself a fan of the band, but my appreciation of The Doors and their music has improved notably after watching this film. If for no reason other than that, I chalk up this documentary a success.
As retorts go, this one is excellent. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Eagle Rock Entertainment
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* PCM 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 96 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* IMDb: When You're Strange
* Official Website
* IMDb: HWY: An American Pastoral