Writer/director Tom DiCillo has fashioned an unremarkable documentary about one of America's most remarkable rock bands, the Doors. When You're Strange's visual odyssey details the life and times of the group. More specifically, DiCillo keeps a tight focus on vocalist Jim Morrison's shenanigans as he transforms from a shy poet too scared to face his audience, into a fully fledged Dionysian star; part Marquis de Sade, part Elvis Presley. Johnny Depp narrates the film, fact-checking Oliver Stone's embellishments from the 1991 film The Doors, with a real-time narrative.
The true value of DiCillo's doc is its use of original footage and sound bytes of the band, on stage and off, mixed with images capturing the social and political turmoil of the '60s. When You're Strange posits, almost by accident, that the Doors were a by-product of the times – an idea that deserves more attention. What's most irritating, though, is DiCillo's insistence on returning to the so-called HWY footage of Morrison racing through the desert on some sort of pilgrimage to the Joshua Tree. When combined with Depp's narration, and butted against actual footage of the group, the film feels contrived to the point of being unwatchable. The archival footage alone conveys the feeling of careening out of control with much more elegance.
Shots of Morrison circa 1969 behind the wheel directly reference Jean-Luc Godard's 1960 French new wave film – and Morrison favorite – À bout de souffle. The scenes are peppered with visual cues that seemingly recall everything from Gram Parsons' dying wish to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Depp's deadpan delivery only adds to the convoluted sense of impressionism that tries to take shape, but never materializes.
As the story unfolds, there are no interviews, just a blizzard of images that follow the Doors' decent as Morrison's taste for psychedelics turns to booze and then cocaine. The band continues firing on all cylinders, progressing with fits and starts of brilliance. But Morrison can't keep his act together. His spiral out of control goes hand in hand with the collapse of the peace movement as Nixon, Manson and Kent State rear their ugly heads. The '60s were over, and Morrison, the star that once burned so brightly, faded away. Depp closes the film with a schmaltzy assertion, "You can't burn out if you're not on fire." True, but this film probably won't light anybody's fire.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated to correct a facutal error.