The Doors Used to Be Cool

03/31/2010 4:00 AM |

When You’re Strange
Directed by Tom DiCillo

The Doors were already a joke 20 years ago when, at the height of Boomer nostalgia, Oliver Stone gave them the full feature-length treatment, complete with dancing Native Americans. These days, the band’s reputation has fallen so low that Pitchfork has declared them “less hip than Journey.”

Hard to believe, but the Doors were once cool. Tom DiCillo’s mesmerizing new documentary about the psychedelic quartet cuts through the calcifying effects of four decades—and past billions of tie-dyed t-shirts—to focus on what matters most, the music. Drawing on the same sources as Stone, the story DiCillo has to tell isn’t, on its face, any different. Still, When You’re Strange has been assembled entirely from archival footage. Most of these clips, shot between 1966 and 1971, are familiar, and yet DiCillo arranges the material in such a way as to restore the band’s seductive mystique, its hedonistic anti-hippie appeal.

Best known for cult indie comedies like Johnny Suede, DiCillo loves eccentrics, and he gives all four Doors their due. But inevitably, Jim Morrison dominates. Pretty obviously stoned out of his gourd all of the time, the Lizard King appears more uncertain, more vulnerable and pathetic, than he ever has before. Ambivalent about his own celebrity but hopelessly intoxicated by it, the self-styled latter-day Dionysus could appear wholly introverted on stage, even as he was inciting riots on the streets of New Haven or whipping his penis out. Nearly 40 years after his death, Mr. Mojo Rising has finally gotten the film he deserves.

Opens April 9