When it comes to the Doors, you’re either a true believer or not. Either you think that Jim Morrison was a lugubrious hippie who wrote overblown ’60s doom poetry, backed by music that sounds like a calliope from hell, or you think that Morrison, though he did write a lot of overblown ’60s doom poetry, also led the Doors in recording some of the most transcendent music of the 20th century. When You’re Strange, a documentary history of the Doors directed by Tom DiCillo, is for people like me who can stumble onto the scrappiest Doors video on VH1 at 3 a.m. and sit there, mesmerized.
The movie includes never-before-seen footage of the Doors backstage and in the studio, as well as fluky clips of Morrison, bearded but not yet bloated, driving through the desert (they’re from an aborted 1969 film project called Highway). DiCillo also does a haunting job of reconstructing, through films and photographs, the legendary Miami concert where Morrison was arrested for an indecent exposure he never got to commit. The singer’s elevation into a leaping and whirling Dionysian prince in dark curls, conch belt, and leather pants is one of the great operatic-erotic spectacles in rock. The film gets that drama, and the drama of his alcoholic descent as well.
When You’re Strange does have one major idiosyncrasy. There are no interviews — at all. The movie is stitched together with a narration, spoken by Johnny Depp, that sounds like a highly enlightened Wikipedia entry. Yet DiCillo knows what made this band great. He does justice to the music — to the spangly stoned grandeur of ”The Crystal Ship” and to the dark majesty of ”Light My Fire,” to every song in which Jim Morrison, with his lordly baritone, seemed to be entering heaven and hell at the same time. B+