At The Doors’ 1969 show in Miami, Florida, Jim Morrison was arrested and convicted for, among other things, simulating oral copulation on Robby Krieger’s guitar. The footage didn’t seem to prove this — Morrison was simply on his knees, his face an inch or so from the fretboard. He defended himself in the southern courtroom, saying he was only wanting to watch Krieger play. But the cops wondered: Wasn’t he able to admire his bandmate’s skill all the time during practice? Sure, but his playing gets better every day, Morrison replied, ever the honest smart-ass.
The cops had point, and leave it to the sexually-repressed authorities to come up with it: How many times have I wanted to fellate a well-played guitar?
Okay, so this post isn’t a sequel to Pamela des Barres’ groupie recollections (bummer, I know…), but a review the new Doors documentary, When You’re Strange, narrated by Mr. Johnny Depp. I expected the worst — a fawning tale about a beautiful and dangerous pop culture white male icon as told by a beautiful and dangerous pop culture white male icon. How snake-eating-its-tale can you get, really?
I was, instead, surprisingly impressed and haven’t been able to shut-up about the merits of the film since seeing it at my neighborhood worker-owned one-room moviehouse, the Red Vic. The best was the historic unseen concert footage, from their maiden practices in Venice Beach to the tense recording sessions for the drippingly drunken Soft Parade tracks. Depp’s narration is concise and familiar. If you’ve seen Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas you know the way his emotive yet deadpan story-telling helps move the film along. He tells the typical Behind-the-Music rock tale, from rise to climax to tragic fall; most of us know the basics from Oliver Stone’s 1991 bacchanal ode, The Doors. When You’re Strange is a nice and needed contrast, celebrating Morrison as a poetic hero, accomplished singer, incendiary performer, and, in the band’s own words, one of a troupe of erotic politicians. And, of course, a pretentious fucker.
Though the film focuses mainly on Morrison’s antics and psyche, it also integrates his relationship with the three other Doors and even takes time to describe their individual musical styles and backgrounds. For example, Krieger was a trained flamenco guitar player – the carnivalesque “Light My Fire” being the first song he ever composed on electric guitar – and as such never played with a pick. (For rock guitar, this is admirable, I think. If I don’t have a pick on me I have to borrow a quarter.)
The scenes of Morrison driving through the desert interspersed amidst the concert, studio, and interview footage are the only eyebrow-raising parts. Though the landscape lovely, it’s too artsy-fartsy for me: Is it Morrison’s ghost, a separate movie, a double — who looks a lot more like the singer than Val Kilmer did– shot in the muted tones of vintage film? It does serve to break up the potential monotony of a documentary — a little affected though ultimately tolerable. The only other negligible complaint is the film is not totally chronological and linear, which is momentarily confusing. This is most apparent after the majority of the 90-minute movie goes through album by album, neatly tracking their transformation from the hot new “America’s Rolling Stones” to a frustrated quartet led by a boozey, bearded tripped-up tripper, then catapults back four years to detailing their first arena performance at the Hollywood Bowl and the many consequent controversial shows (the Bowl one being where, incidentally, Morrison’s long-term, she-lives-on-Love-Street girlfriend Pamela Courson was reportedly sitting on the lap of the real Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger in the front row).
When You’re Strange reminded me what I knew as a sophomore in high school but had since, through years of hurting my neck and soothing my spirit with metal, overlooked: You can’t get much heavier than the Doors. The concert footage triggered this overwhelming sentiment. Whether because they were so unprecedented musically, or because they had the force of the cultural youth-led revolution of the late ’60s behind them, or because of Morrison’s shock-rock tendencies to do things like confess his Oedipal hate-lust while falling on the stage moaning (something that 40 years later still might not be, uh, attractive but might generate a shrug at most), I’m not sure. I do know that I don’t see anything, despite womb-shattering solos or guitars tuned down to the dregs, both as intense and important as what The Doors were doing when they were doing it. This is the end, my only friend, and in the end When You’re Strange was a beautiful balance of music, documentary, and art.
Which only leads me to the obvious question: When is a director going to do this for Sabbath?!