When You’re Strange: A Film About The Doors

December 29, 2010

In a time where everything appears to have a price tag, writer/director Tom Dicillo’s statement rings true; “The Doors, they never sold out. It was deeply inspirational to be reminded that not everything is for sale.” More than just a documentary about the formation of an iconic band, When You’re Strange: A Film About The Doors (2009), is about that historical, social and political synthesis that occurs when music engages with and permeates its temporal context.

Whilst it is undoubtedly true that the music itself stands strong “against time” (so to speak), it is also true that The Doors are a band, and that their music is an output, that captures something significant of its own time. Perhaps the very reason it resonates still today is that what it captured was a transient and hopeful moment never fully realised; its relevancy today, therefore, permeating and immovable.

Refreshingly for a documentary about so famous a group as The Doors, Dicillo doesn’t go down the tired and frankly rather fruitless line of “talking heads” and instead uses fine filmmaking craft to find the most piercing way to start a story: “The sixties began with a shot.” Tracing from here the events and awakenings of the time, Dicillo moves from the assassination of John F. Kennedy through the Civil Rights Movement and up to the Vietnam War. Commenting upon whilst chartering these significant events, When You’re Strange is as much about historically significant values and moments of cultural change as it is the band. Dicillo doesn’t just pose history as a backdrop for their advent to fame but rather as the symbiotic, organic relationship that evolved between the two; “The establishment exists but a genuine counter-culture is growing.”

Making full use of remarkable stock footage of the band playing gigs as well of their fans and contemporaries, When You’re Strange is told simultaneously through voice-over narration and musical progression. A surprisingly rare feat for a music documentary, When You’re Strange actually considers the quality and aspects of their music and why that was not only unique but how it engaged and informed their displays of revelry and the carnivalesque in relation to the emerging counter-culture of the time. There is of course a tendency towards focus on Jim Morrison above other members of the band, but at no time does the film ignore the other three members; John Densmore, Robby Krieger,  Ray Manzarek; in preference of the notorious front man, always ensuring the focus is in relation to his effect on the group as a whole.

Contemplating violence as an American tradition and with the advent of Richard Nixon to the presidency, the film culminates in an extraordinarily moving montage set to “Riders on the Storm”. Contrasting war footage and an all-American child on the home front swinging like a monkey set perfectly to the lyric “let your children play”, When You’re Strange highlights how mimicry can lead to devastation. Revealing how political unrest ebbs and flows between counter-culture and conservatism just as artistic expression moves between its own motivating forces, When You’re Strange is never over dramatised or condescending to its audience and allows the incredible imagery and music of its subject to do so much of “the talking”. That said, the film is still scripted and operates as an “informative” documentary in the first instance, the dulcet tones of Johnny Depp narrating and guiding the experience. A fantastic documentary that reveals compelling subject matter, this is certainly one to make time for.

When You’re Strange: A Film About the Doors is screening exclusively as part of an ACMI’s long-play season from December 27 2010 to January 3 2011 and is distributed through Madman Entertainment.

Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.

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2 Responses to “When You’re Strange: A Film About The Doors”

  1. Great review. This doco got me interested in The Doors again and I think the sections of the film where they examine their actual music is what really won me over.

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