By Phyllis Pollack
“I am as proud of this as anything I’ve ever done,” says Johnny Depp in the liner notes to the Tom Dicillo documentary about The Doors, When You’re Strange, a film that he narrates. Available on DVD and Blu-ray, it is released by Eagle Rock Entertainment. Following late vocalist Jim Morrison’s decline and path of self-destruction leading to his 1971 death in Paris, the film provides copious footage of the band, both in the studio and on stage.
The documentary is laced together with dramatization portraying the Lizard King cruising the freeways of Los Angeles and its surrounding area in the desert, listening to the radio, and hearing the voice of longtime El Lay radio jock Jim Ladd, eulogizing Morrison.
With little exception, the film concentrates on the time period within the 54-month career of The Doors, who have sold over 80 million albums. The band, comprised of Morrison, guitarist Robby Krieger, drummer John Densmore and keyboardist Ray Manzarek, are portrayed as helpless, watching Morrison spiral into excess with drug and drink, his demise an inevitable consequence.
His impaired state would be obvious from the beginning, when the band was fired from their gig as the house band at The Whiskey A-Go-Go on the Sunset Strip.
Johnny Depp knows the story all too well, in countless ways, with experiences that include his having fbeen one of the former owners of the Viper Room, a West Hollywood rock and roll hangout. Actor River Phoenix collapsed and died outside of the club in October 1993. Even sans Keith Richards, Depp has long had his own rock and roll credentials. Depp himself has hit the stage playing, and he wanted to be in a band long before he left Rock City Angels in the 1980’s to join the cast of 29 Jump Street. Depp would end up hanging out in many of the places Morrison, himself, haunted. Songs like “L.A. Woman” became unofficial anthems for the city of countless lost angels.
The vocalist never spoke to his father after 1966, when he elder Morrison told him to “give up any idea of singing, or any connection with a music group, because of what I consider a complete lack of talent in this direction.”
Two years later, The Village Voice would laud The Doors as Band of the Year, and would dub Morrison as having the best voice in rock.
His father, who was an admiral in Viet Nam, discusses his son in the film, which he has never previously done publicly.
Written and directed by DiCillo, Viewers are taken through Morrison’s oblivion that included missing flights, passing out on stage, and other chaos. The most publicized of those incidents includes Morrison being beaten up at a concert venue by the police in Florida, where he was facing serving time for felony charges for alleged sexual activity on stage, of which there has never been any proof. Despite a hundred police officers being inside the venue that night, none had ever tried to stop him from doing any such behavior. Because of Morrison’s stance in favor of personal freedom versus institutionalized and societal submission, he was reviled by many authority figures. Decency groups protested the band, and the live theatrics of Morrison’s dysfunctions sometimes overshadowed the group’s music.
With his addictions leading to the disintegration of his health and the band, Morrison often alienated others, as much as he felt alienated, himself. His girlfriend Pamela Courson asked him to go to a therapist, but he only went once. It was her preference that he quit the band, and that he write poetry books instead. It was not mentioned in the film that she died of a heroin overdose three years after Morrison’s death. The film’s narrative is punctuated by a musical and video montage, focusing on the short life of the band that still sells over a million albums a year. The circumstances of Morrison’s death, which have already been extensively detailed in many other works are not argued or debated in the film, but are rather left understated, as “The End.”