Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear when youth ran amok and America freaked out. A rock doc with more than a whiff of fried brain cells, Tom DiCillo’s When You’re Strange serves to remind the faithful that the Doors were a fabulously tight, ferociously talented musical unit fronted by the drop-dead-gorgeous Jim Morrison—and why not? The Doors provided a suitably carnivalesque soundtrack for the High Sixties funhouse, and the band’s lederhosen-clad lead singer offered an amazing parallel to his father, a Navy admiral who happened to be commanding the U.S. fleet during the Gulf of Tonkin incident that jumpstarted the nation’s full-scale involvement in Vietnam.
Morrison père helped facilitate one of the greatest debacles in American history; Morrison fils became the witting protagonist of a genuine American myth, living proof that if you drop enough acid, self-importance might merge with the real thing. As befits a onetime film student, the so-called Lizard King was a new-wave pop star—for him, life really was the equivalent of performing in a movie. (Call it Wild in the Streets or Dionysus ’69.)
DiCillo overburdens When You’re Strange, which is narrated by Johnny Depp, with a cliché barrage of achronological news events, including an unconscionable use of Robert Kennedy’s death agony, but the archival Doors footage he has assembled is anything but banal—the band compelled to perform with house lights on and within a police perimeter, Morrison mixing with his audience at the Singer Bowl or mixing it up with the cops in New Haven, the career-capping Miami debacle that locked him in permanent martyrdom mode.
Like the Living Theatre or Lenny Bruce, Morrison embraced the Jesus thing. His self-medicated bloat-out—dead in Paris at 27—only sanctified his anti-career. (No Reagan turnabout for him.) For a couple of years, Morrison was the best act in American show business. And the best thing about it: It wasn’t an act.