On the face of it, When You’re Strange is a no-nonsense, chronological documentary account of The Doors, from their early days as a supporting act in the mid ’60s to frontman Jim Morrison’s death in a Paris bathtub in 1971.
From their first record deal, the focus is on how Morrison’s drinking affected their music and their reputation, while they simultaneously produced some of the most highly regarded albums of that period.
No surprises there for anyone who knows the history of the band – and there’s also no escaping the fact that many of the incidents recounted here were already covered in dramatic form in Oliver Stone’s The Doors 19 years ago.
But what’s particularly valuable about this documentary is that it’s told entirely with archive footage, some of it extraordinary, which shows Morrison both as an impassioned performer and a highly inflammatory presence when in front of an adoring audience.
As good as Val Kilmer was in his role as Morrison, he’s no substitute for the Lizard King himself. Just as he did with the Hunter S Thompson documentary Gonzo, Johnny Depp provides a persuasive narration.
However, his chatter is all about the frontman – so much so that the film really should have been subtitled A Film About Jim Morrison, so fleetingly does it touch on the other band members.
Also hard to swallow is the occasionally saintly view it affords its main subject, backed up with too much focus on Morrison’s self-indulgent poetry and some (mercifully brief) clips from the experimental film he starred in that mostly consisted of him driving through the desert.
Where When You’re Strange is most effective is in the incredibly evocative way it serves as a chronicle of a time and a place, and as an eye-opening insight into a destructive personality.
Ultimately, it stands as a symbol of how Jim Morrison joined the long list of artists whose untimely death merely ensured their immortality.
The inclusion of some remarkable footage will please anyone with even a passing interest and almost makes up for the lack of extras.