The Doors: When You’re Strange

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

16 August

Elvis Presley dies, 1977

On this day in 1977, the King of Rock’n’Roll, Elvis Presley, died, an old man culturally and physically at 42. He had been physically in a steep decline since 1973, having overdosed twice on barbiturates that year. By 1977 he was fat and so dosed with drugs that he could barely talk on stage. He was suffering from glaucoma, liver damage, an enlarged heart and an enlarged colon. On the afternoon of 16 August, Elvis’s fiancée, Ginger Alden, found him on the bathroom floor dead. A lab report found his body contained 14 drugs, ten in “significant quantity”, though medical examiner Dr Jerry Francisco declared that death was caused by cardiac arrhythmia, before the autopsy and toxicology results were in. The autopsy case was re-opened in 1994, at which point it was declared that Presley had died of a “sudden, violent heart attack”.

When You’re Strange (2009, dir: Tom DiCillo)

A feature length episode of the TV series American Masters, When You’re Strange is probably the definitive documentary on The Doors and is certainly the antidote to Oliver Stone’s babbly The Doors. Its USP is the new footage it contains, most of it unseen before, and what’s more most of it very sharp, colourful and not at all old looking. Much of it shot in 1965, when Jim Morrison, Ray Manzarek, Robby Krieger and John Densmore first got the band together, the footage confirms what was instinctively apparent back then – that California was about 30 years ahead of the world. You could literally pick up Morrison et al and drop them down in an other subsequent time (OK, maybe not the 1980s) and they’d fit in. Fittingly, it’s Johnny Depp doing the voiceover.

If Morrison was one of the rock gods, that baritone voice alone making him noteworthy, the band is one of the total rock bands. The new footage is threaded judiciously through more traditional ways of hiding the gaps by director Tom DiCillo – a bit of old archive here, photographs and a touch of reconstruction there, though notably there is no modern day talking head footage: that way less revisionism, perhaps. It tells the familiar story of the rise of a rock band, from meeting in film school, to playing in Los Angeles venues such as the London Fog and Whisky a Go Go, to their first big hit (Light My Fire) which earned them a $50,000 royalty cheque each. And as we watch we see Morrison declining, drunk and stoned on the Ed Sullivan Show, high on stage as the police literally stand guard over him while he sings – the law in attendance is surely the high point of rock’n’roll – to ensure he doesn’t do anything lewd, which wasn’t unknown. As Morrison gets more bloated, he ironically switched vocal allegiance from Elvis to Sinatra, a detail which makes you wonder what he would have sounded like if he’d come out of purdah in Paris, instead of dying there of heart failure caused by over-indulgence. And as Morrison did more drugs, so the albums took longer to record – 1969’s The Soft Parade taking nine months. However, The Doors’ last album, and most well known, LA Woman, took only about a week, and featured Jerry Scheff, of Elvis’s band, playing bass. A new start? Sadly not.

Of course the film is in groupie territory, shedding more heat than light on the Doors, but it does it slickly, is highly entertaining and anyway it’s hard to resist Morrison and the band at their best, which they are. As the credits prepare to roll, DiCillo runs a few statistics – the band were together for 54 months, they have sold over 80 million albums (it’ll be over 100 million by now) and their songs have never been used in a car commercial. Cut straight to the credits and the opening “I wanna tell you about Texas Radio and the Big Beat” of The Wasp.

Why Watch?

  • New footage of one of the great bands
  • Jim Morrison, the rock god template
  • It taps the zeitgeist
  • The music, man

The Doors: When You’re Strange – Watch it now at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

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