For music fans, like myself, the mythology of Jim Morrison shines as a beacon in the history of modern music - perhaps sanctified somewhat by the singer's death in a Paris bath-tub in 1971. Unsurprisingly following the trend attached to icons who die before their time (and in mysterious circumstances to boot) the legacy of Morrison's band The Doors has swollen with the addition of countless documentaries, fluff-pieces and the occassional biopic, and there looks to be no end, with this latest documentary treading familiar ground, though with the addition of some choice new material.
It seems that there will be no resting in peace just yet for the man whose unfortunate mantra band-mate Ray Manzarek pronounced as "Look out man, I'm hell-bent on destruction".
Johnny Depp narrates When You're Strange, and you really get the sense that his occasionally wayward genius is the perfect match to tell the tale of Jim Morrison and friends, who rode to the zenith of their musical moment in history and then crashed back to Earth as the reality of drink and drug abuse soiled their legacy and their genius.
Anyone already familiar with Oliver Stone's excellent biopic- for which Val Kilmer deserved multiple award nominations but was seemingly rewarded with far too few wins- will be familiar with the events that the documentary chronologically offers, but unlike that dramatized version, When You're Strange scores weighty points for its sole use of archive footage. Because, when it comes down to it, and you have a choice between Val Kilmer playing Morrison and the Lizard King himself, there simply is no comparison.
In all honesty, this should probably have been called When You're Strange: A Film About Jim Morrison because the documentary pays scant regard to the other members of the band, preferring to bask in the ethereal majesty of Morrison's presence. It is understandable though, the man exudes genius from every beautiful pore, and his greatest lasting legacy is not the music that he sang to, or the (pretty fucking pompous) poetry that he penned, but rather that unquantifiable something that made him a born star.
The approach using only archive footage, with the addition of Depp's aural-nectar voice-over works well, as it did earlier this year for the BBC's Rolling Stones documentary Stones in Exile (though of course Depp's place was taken on that project by myriad floating head commentators). Unlike Stones in Exile, When You're Strange feels more like the work of a fan; there isn't the same ego-stroking that the Stones project is full of (it is little wonder since three of the Stones were pretty much in charge of proceedings), and while it isn't as historically rich, there is certainly enough information to appease established fans and prick the interest of new ones.
While the footage of Morrison's own, incredibly strange film project (largely just him driving in the desert oddly) adds an insight that I wouldn't have otherwise had into the mind of the wandering star, there is a little nagging sense that the film is more concerned with furthering the mythology of Morrison, rather than opening new doors (if you'll pardon the pun). There is the slightest hint of sanctimony, and parts of the documentary are rather insistent, proffering the same saintly view of Morrison that others have painted before, and not really delving too far into his hellish and chaotic destructive element that would ultimately cost him his life and his band's deserved longevity.
Personally, I'd have preferred a little more delving below the surface: there is definitely room in the already sizeable canon of work dedicated to the band to see more intimate details of the band's chemistry and inner relationships. When You're Strange certainly, unfortunately fails to answer any of the questions around how the rest of the band dealt with Morrison's behaviour in any real depth. And I yearn to hear what Morrison really thougth about his incredible good fortune at being surrounded by such rich musical talent as Ray Manzarek, Robby Krieger and John Densmore, as well as the countless session musicians and technical support who made their recordings possible. I suppose I want to know whether Morrison was capable of a human level of humility that didn't shroud itself in the self-destructive influence of alcohol or under a monstrous alter-ego stage persona. When You're Strange is sadly at fault for not offering anything like that level of information.
While I definitely enjoyed When You're Strange, and particularly the new footage I hadn't yet come across before, my experience was spoiled somewhat by having read an incredibly good article in Classic Rock magazine which looked at The Doors' recording of the 'L.A. Woman' album and the last days of Morrison's life in the kind of lovingly intricate detail that makes that magazine one of the best publications currently available to buy. The two are miles apart in terms of what I took from them, and When You're Strange sadly pales by comparison, despite being one of the better music documentaries released recently.
Now, if someone was to come along and buy up the rights to that story, with its revelations and confirmation of former Ny Times journalist Sam Bernett's 2007 book The End- Jim Morrison that would surely offer an intriguing look into the final hours of The Doors and of Jim Morrison.
Overall, a compelling piece of work- giving some fresh insight into Morrison's life and wayward behaviour, though a lot of the subject matter is very familiar already, and the rest of the band are conspicuous by their near-absence.