Director Tom DiCillo does his damnedest to make his documentary about The Doors unwatchable, but the subject matter is too compelling—and the vintage footage too electrifying—to be completely worthless. When You’re Strange opens with a scene of iconic Doors singer Jim Morrison emerging from a smashed-up car, followed by a radio report about his death in Paris and a rapid-fire montage of The Doors’ career in reverse. DiCillo returns to those kinds of corny ’60s-style head-trips frequently, whenever he isn’t dredging up images of Vietnam and naked Woodstockers to signify the era in the most clichéd way possible. Half the time, there’s no compelling reason to look at the screen during When You’re Strange, especially since instead of interviews with the principals, DiCillo has Johnny Depp reading narration that alternates unnecessary play-by-play and banal observations. (Example, regarding Morrison’s state of mind before a show: “It’s hard to know if he’s just mingling with his fans or if he’s drawing something crucial from them, as though he needs their attention to survive.” Yeesh.)
The Doors do have a remarkable story, which begins with them rocketing from Sunset Strip obscurity to the top of the Billboard charts in just a year, and continues through a four-year frenzy of intoxicants, public provocations, and multiple “comebacks.” To his credit, DiCillo doesn’t overlook Morrison’s booze-fueled unreliability issues, nor does he shortchange the qualities that made The Doors special: John Densmore’s jazz-influenced drums, Robby Krieger’s flamenco-goes-pop guitar, Ray Manzarek’s bottom-heavy garage-rock organ, and Morrison’s untamed charisma. The band was exceptionally deft at improvisation, as evidenced by some of the livewire performances that DiCillo includes in When You’re Strange.
But aside from the too-broad context of the ’60s youth movement—and brief mentions of how Morrison idolized Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra—DiCillo doesn’t frame The Doors properly. He treats them as though they were sui generis, not part of a whole Los Angeles music scene filled with similar—and in some cases, superior—bands. (When You’re Strange posits a world without Love.) It’s as though grounding The Doors in reality would detract from DiCillo’s formal strategy: combining fawning recitations from an audiobook with the kind of amateurish fan-made montages readily available on YouTube.