Reopening the Doors
f you’ve seen Oliver Stone’s The Doors, which featured Val Kilmer’s remarkable turn as rock poet Jim Morrison, you might think you know all there is to know about the influential band. But in the new documentary When You’re Strange: A Film About the Doors, director Tom DiCillo uses previously unreleased period footage, including Morrison’s own, to reexamine the band’s impact on our culture—and on the group itself. He captures the band and Morrison at their peak in a way you’ve never seen before, unless you’re old enough to have seen them perform live. Jac Holzman, the founder of Elektra Records who signed the Doors— Morrison, keyboardist Ray Manzarek, drummer John Densmore, and guitarist Robby Krieger—to a record deal in 1966, called When You’re Strange “one of the great films about music and the crazy, driven people who have no choice but to create it.” Actor Johnny Depp, who narrates, stated, “It simply doesn’t get any better than this.” Audiences at the Sundance and Berlin film festivals agreed. The movie just hit theaters in limited release, and next month it’s airing on PBS’s American Masters (check your local listings). For his six previous films, including the acclaimed Living in Oblivion, Box of Moonlight, and Delirious, DiCillo directed the likes of Brad Pitt, Steve Buscemi, Catherine Keener, Matthew Modine, and Daryl Hannah. When You’re Strange is his first documentary. There are images in this film that burn into your brain, like the slowmotion shot of Morrison, floating down to the stage. I talked to Ray, John, and Robby at length, and discovered that they were so gifted at intuitively watching Morrison—and so skillful, each in their own way, as musicians—that they could just let him go wherever he wanted. He knew when he was up there that whenever he came down he would be okay. I said, “I’m going to try to illustrate that.” We took that footage and slowed it down so we could really feel it. You avoid the usual Doors/Morrison mythologizing. My intent was to present this historical moment as realistically and accurately as possible. We’re getting a glimpse into these four guys—in particular Morrison—in a way that I don’t think anybody has seen before. Early on, when they’re asked their occupations in an interview, Morrison flashes an amazing smile that suggests he knew something the rest of the band—and world—didn’t. Morrison, even at that point, was going, “This is a crazy game.”

Johnny Depp’s reading of Jim’s final words is very moving. That was incredible. Johnny has a huge connection to Morrison and to the Doors’ music, and he brings it. Did you discover anything about the Doors you didn’t know? I learned that it was a real foursome. It wasn’t just Ray, it wasn’t just Robby, it wasn’t just John. It was the three of them together that enabled Morrison to do what he was going to do. Your fictional films are very personal. Is it fair to say that you connected to this factual material through Morrison? I related to his commitment, on a personal level, to just doing what he felt was the right thing. You know, his immediate refusal to let the band use “Light My Fire” for the Buick Opel commercial, even though he was plastered. He said, “We don’t make music for commercials.” So you can identify with the “obedience is suicide” line in the movie? I wrote that. It doesn’t mean you say no just for the sake of saying no. But obedience? The main idea is that you have a brain and hopefully you have an experience that has enabled you to see what’s going on in the world. But disobedience with clarity of vision, to me that’s what art is about.

Almost 40 years after Jim Morrison’s 1971 death, award-winning director Tom DiCillo looks back at the seminal rock band in a new documentary. By Kevin Avery


“It was a real foursome. It wasn’t just Ray it wasn’t just Robby it wasn’t , , just John. It was the three of them together that enabled Morrison to do what he was going to do.”
Why does he tell Manzarek, “Well, the thing is, I don’t think I like the game”? If you listen to some of his exhortations to the crowd, he’s not talking about anything really profound. The fact is, Morrison was an incredibly intelligent person. Not just book smart; he also was incredibly smart in terms of creating an image. I think what happened was that it almost immediately got out of his control and made him go, “Here I am, I’ve got all these people, and all they want to do is come see me sing ‘Light My Fire.’ I have the potential to do more than that. I’m a poet, I’m a writer, I’m an intellectual. I could change the world, and here I am, just being Elvis.” Despite what Morrison does to himself, When You’re Strange is a very nonjudgmental movie. You have to present him like a character in a narrative film. Don’t say, “Oh, yeah, he was a drunk.” We show that he takes every substance known to man; it doesn’t discredit him. What it does is make him more human.