[Major Correction: In the opening paragraph of this I state that the film opens with a Jim Morrison look-a-like stumbling around a desert, looking lost, hitching a ride from himself, and then hearing about his own death in Paris on the radio. I felt the whole thing seemed a bit anomalous to the rest of the film, but it turns out it was in fact Morrison in his own film HWY: American Pastoral, with ominous radio dialogue dubbed in by the documentary’s director Tom DiCillo.
It’s an inexcusable oversight on my part, fuelled by my own indignant pride at ignoring press-notes.
It’s comforting to know that others found these sequences uncannily restored to the point of looking like the were shot last week, and I guess the whole thing felt a little anomalous to me. The fact that DiCillo recut Morrison’s own film to suit the documentary’s narrative purposes is also pretty questionable in my book.
Not that that matters, as it still doesn’t excuse the fact that I fucked up.]
When batting around general truisms about documentaries it’s easy to just throw away the glib observation that ‘it’s all about the subject, sink or swim, it’s all about the subject’. Which is true, as outside the realms of art cinema I have yet to hear or see anyone make a stunning hour and a half treatise on the story of paint drying. That said, part of me wonders why not?
The new documentary When You’re Strange is a study of The Doors brief explosion, the dips, the peaks, and the eventual demise of frontman Jim Morrison. It’s brimming with some quite stunning archive footage of the band preparing, recording, performing, and just larking around, with nary a talking head in sight. The film opens with a pretty uncanny Morrison [look-a-like] stumbling about in the desert, getting a lift from himself(?) and then hearing the news about his own death in Paris on the radio. At which point Johnny Depp, the modern cicerone of the hedonistic Sixties (see – Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson) chimes in some flat, timeless yet instantly forgettable observation about ‘The Man’ Jim Morrison. Which as openings for documentaries go is pretty damn worrying in my book.
The film eventually cuts to the actual business of the band; formation; early beginnings; first performances; the first studio session, and so forth and so on. The early days at UCLA film school, the band members found in meditation class and the first performances with Jim keeping his back to the audience. Following the daft opening a creeping sense of ‘going through the motions’ almost set in, saved wholesale by the endless wash of superb archive material. Footage like this, be it from television recordings, or from home film collections has a nasty habit of looking awful when blown up. Grain, static flicker, crackly sound, and aspect ratios which refuse to stay put make for a documentary makers nightmare. When You’re Strange has miraculously ironed over all these issues, and produced a film for fans of the band to endlessly fawn over.
The reputation of The Door’s live is as big as the band itself, yet actually seeing the band’s frenzied performance, Morrison’s explosive presence, the army of police officers spread out unevenly on stage, managed exceed the over-hyped picture I had of these ‘happenings’. More Beatlemania than hippy-hippy-shake, but with an added twist of cruelty and occasional no-show. The film bumbles on with the over-arching narrative, Morrison’s comings and goings eclipsing the whole of the rest of the band. The myth of the band rolls on, weighed down by the clichés it helped reinforce. Jim Morrison dies, his legacy lives on, The End.
Simply put the film is as good as your love of The Doors. If you can’t abide the band, or Jim Morrison in particular then you’ll really struggle with it. If you love the band then you’ll just drown in all the footage the film serves up. Those in the middle will find the film pretty middling. In part this reflects the film’s success in telling the band’s tale without either overblown hagiography or excessive apology. On the flipside maybe this just reflects how dangerously married the film is to its’ subject matter.
Of course most documentaries have to be precariously close to their subject to come into existence in the first place, but it’s tricky when you can’t quite place the authorial bias in relation to the material. Director Tom DiCillo must obviously be a fan, but his presence and the tone it applies to the film is filtered through the slightly stern, yet reverentially hushed tones of Johnny Depp. The brilliance of a good and unexpected documentary is the ability to take even the most unpeculiar subject and frame it in such a way that anyone and everyone can take something from it.
Font fetishist doc Helvetica immediately springs to mind in this sense, taking the definition of a flat subject and breathing focus into the subject, and it was served well by building on the passion and interest of those at the heart of typography design. A Fistful of Quarters also plumbed the dangerously fringe fields of retrogaming, pursuing the compulsive score chasing of cabinet arcade freaks. As a struggling Pac Man addict I was instantly drawn to this tale, and the film found a huge audience well beyond the limits of gaming-niche it inhabited with a story of a rivalry that matched any Hollywood fare you care to mention. It of course played very loose and ready with the facts to build an immaculate arc for this story, but this it would seem is par for the course in modern documentary making.
That said, selling a documentary on an unspectacular subject is [as the Swedes would say] like selling sand to the Bedouins. Both Helvetica and Fistful both held a kooky hook which could sell them to anyone with even the smallest vein of curiosity. That they were both great documentaries also helped. Speaking personally, the magic of a brilliant documentary is the unexpected one you stumble across at a film festival, or at the back end of the TV schedules. Sheffield’s own DocFest does a fine job of bombarding me with more peculiar things than I could shake a festival pass at, and the kinks of programming and personal availability has forced me into seeing films I wouldn’t otherwise touch with a barge pole. A few stinkers along the way, sure, but a few gems I wouldn’t ever have a chance of seeing again.
Television however is the real home of the cold-calling documentary. A highlight in recent memory was The Man With the Golden Gavel, about A-list art auctioneer Simon de Pury, which I caught late on BBC4 and somehow managed to keep me hooked well past my bed time. Its’ subject, while charming to excess, is not particularly likeable, and more than a little cut-throat. It’s hard to curry interest in the struggles of a man who can only be described as obscenely rich, but the film skipped along with a swift pace and was packed with plentiful detail about the large auction houses of the world. I had absolutely zero interest in the subject, but stuck watching I was.
Whether When You’re Strange will have this effect on the unsuspecting cine-goer I couldn’t tell you, as author and viewer are too enthused about the subject to begin with.