While many of their peers both in and out of the music business were focused solely on peace, love, and good times during the latter half of the 1960s, The Doors (singer Jim Morrison, keyboardist Ray Manzarek, guitarist Robbie Kreiger, and drummer John Densmore) covered a wider variety of subject matter. They presented a more complete examination of life as they alternated between joy, like "Hello, I Love You," and explorations of darker moods, such as in "People Are Strange". The music did a fantastic job evoking the emotions of the lyrics.
In 1978, seven years after Morrison's death, they released "An American Prayer," their last studio album. The remaining members put music and effects to Morrison's recorded poetry and created a work he likely would have been proud of. In "The Movie" he asked “Did you have a good world when you died?/ Enough to base a movie on?” Apparently he did because in addition to Oliver Stone’s 1991 biopic 'The Doors,' director Tom DiCillo has created the documentary 'When You’re Strange.'
Rather than including the typical talking heads presenting their recollections and anecdotes of what did or only may have happened decades ago, the film is culled solely from footage shot of the band members during the quartet’s run from 1965 to 1971. DiCillo says in the liner notes "This is their story. Let them tell it." To inform those audience members who don’t know the oft-told tale of their exploits, Johnny Depp serves as narrator, taking over the role from DiCillo who provided narration when the documentary was screened at Sundance 2009. Depp’s voice captures the spirit of the band and the time.
'When You’re Strange' tells how the quartet met and came together in Los Angeles, their rise to the top of the charts, and Morrison’s struggles dealing with rock-star fame that led to his alcoholism and the end of the band. The film naturally and fittingly ends with Morrison’s death in Paris, although the past few decades certainly offered plenty of material as the remaining trio and Morrison’s estate carry on The Doors legacy.
Morrison’s poem comes to mind again since Doors fans will find the program not entirely “new/ You've seen this entertainment through and through.” Much of the footage will be very familiar: there’s many clips of the band in concert at different venues, the classic segment of them getting off an airplane in Europe and introducing themselves, and their appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show" singing "Light My Fire" with Morrison ignoring the censors.
However, the highlight is the new material from the archives, including footage of the band working in the studio. There’s never any authentication of when any of the material was shot, so it’s not always clear if scenes of strife and annoyance on their faces are captured during the normal course of the band’s work or at actual tense moments.
Throughout the film, DiCillo threads snippets of Morrison’s short film "HWY" where the singer takes on the role of actor as he wanders and drives through parts of the California desert. As a narrative device, it’s not clear what DiCillo was trying to convey. Although it was intriguing to see Morrison away from the music, it’s impossible to ascertain from the fragments what that film is about.
First and foremost, 'When You’re Strange' is a celebration of the band. Seeing them perform with their music throuhgh through a quality sound system is quite a treat.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Eagle Entertainment brings 'When You're Strange' to high-definition on a BD-25 Blu-ray disc housed inside a standard blue keepcase. There are liner notes by DiCillo, Depp, and producer Dick Wolf, and a poster that's a slightly larger version of the cover. The disc goes directly to the menu screen without any promotional advertisements. The disc is Region A.
'When You're Strange' is presented with 1080p AVC encoded transfer at an aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The footage is culled together from numerous sources shot on 35mm, 16mm, and late '60s television broadcasts from the U.S. and Europe. There's even archival news footage that puts the turbulent times in perspective. All of which are in varying degrees of quality, "degradation" might be a more accurate word, so a viewer's appreciation for historical significance has to outweigh normal standards for video quality or disappointment is guaranteed.
The clips from 'HWY' look the best. The most vibrant colors can be seen here as items pop in contrast to background of the California desert. Blacks are adequate though not deep, contributing to good contrast. Edges are sharp and textures are evident, such as the hairs of the dead coyote.
Unfortunately for a few, the majority of the film doesn’t come close to this quality, which makes the defects stand out even more. The famous sequence at the European airport where they're individually interviewed shows so much grain moving around it looks like insects are writhing around on their faces. Transferring their infamous performance on "The Ed Sullivan Show" to film and then Blu-ray has caused the colors to not be as bright. There is black and white footage taken from the band's early days in a Sunset Strip club that is overwhelmingly dark and speckled so much throughout with white marks it almost looks like snow flurries, yet there's something wonderful about being afforded a chance of seeing them, however briefly, play in 1965. On a positive note, I didn't see any digital artifacts.
The audio comes in two options: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and PCM Stereo.
The remastered music sounds fantastic. It's robust and engulfs the listener as it plays through the surround system. There's great clarity and separation of the three instruments to help appreciate their talents. Manzarek makes the most of the subwoofer as he plays bass lines on his organ. The live bits of music have varying degrees of lower fidelity reminiscent of listening to AM radio.
Depp's narration is clear and plays through the front channel as does most of the other talking. Though just like the music, when at concerts the quality diminishes, like when Morrison yells and antagonizes an audience in Miami. Effects are added to 'HWY'. The only time imaging occurs is when cars are heard passing from one channel to another as they cross the frame. The elements are well balanced and they demonstrate a great dynamic range.
Highly recommended for fans who want to see and hear an excellent biography of the band. For anyone curious about The Doors, this is a great introduction, as you can see their story unfold. Those who don't like the band likely won't be swayed. The high definition audio makes up for the deficiencies of the video, though this reviewer feels documentaries should be held to a different standard.