TV Review: “When You’re Strange: A Film About the Doors” (PBS American Masters)

Written by Television, TV Reviews

When You're Strange: A Film About the DoorsYou probably decided whether you are going to watch the latest installment of the great PBS series American Masters tonight when you saw the title. Because when it comes to the Doors, opinion is most definitely divided. You either love the Doors, and think that they were one of the most important bands of the ’60s, or you dismiss them as overrated, and deride their lack of musicianship. I fall into the former category, but even here at Popdose some of my colleagues are in the latter. That’s fine. It’s differences in musical taste that make rock and roll the subject of endless discussions.

By now, all non-Doors fans have stopped reading, if they ever started reading at all. So I’m left to discuss this film with fans, or people who at least have an interest in the history of rock and roll. Cool.

When You’re Strange is the first feature length documentary on the Doors. It was directed by Tom DiCillo, the American director who is perhaps best known for his 1995 film Living In Oblivion. The producers, for all of you Law & Order fans, are Dick Wolf and Peter Jankowski. After initially planning to do the narration himself, DiCillo wisely chose to employ the talents of another Doors fan, Johnny Depp. “As a rock and roll documentary, or any kind of documentary for that matter, it simply doesn’t get any better than this. What an honor to have been involved. I am as proud of this as anything I have ever done,” says Depp.

DiCillo made another interesting decision when he chose not to include any current interview footage, opting to use only original footage of the band, much of it previously unseen. The film traces the story of the Doors from the time that UCLA film school alumni Ray Manzarek and Jim Morrison met by chance in Venice Beach, CA, to Morrison’s lonely death in Paris on July 3, 1971. We’re there for all the highs and lows of the band’s storied career, from the height of their success as “America’s Rolling Stones,” in 1968, to the very public unraveling of Jim Morrison on a stage in Miami in 1969. We see audiences morph from a group of people who love the band’s music into a pack of voyeurs who are there only to watch Morrison implode.

It’s a sad story. Say what you will about Jim Morrison, but it’s hard to argue with the fact that he was one of the most charismatic, mysterious, and troubled souls ever to prowl a stage. His band stood nobly by him for years, but in the end, there was nothing left for them to do but stand by and watch Morrison destroy himself. The Doors at their best were undoubtedly one of the most interesting, provocative, and downright dangerous bands in the history of American rock and roll, and Tom DiCillo has the footage to prove it. “From the outset I decided to use only original footage of this astonishing band,” says DiCillo. “To me, there is nothing more powerful and riveting than seeing Robby Krieger, Ray Manzarek, John Densmore, and Jim Morrison leap into life on the screen.”

When You’re Strange: A Film About the Doors is an utterly compelling documentary. For the first time, we get the complete story of the band; the recording of every album, Morrison’s two performance-related arrests and his subsequent trial in Miami after the second one, every musical high and personal low. Fans of the band won’t want to miss it, but anyone who is interested in the way that the music shaped the times, and the times shaped music in the 1960’s will want to tune in.

The film debuts nationally tonight on PBS. Check your local listings for time and channel.

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