Thursday, October 28, 2010

Rock on Film Pt 1: When You're (sure that people will think more highly of you if they deem you) Strange

Jim Morrison shares a joke with the photographer
Just saw When You're Strange: a film about The Doors.

The story of The Doors goes something like this: four magic elves form a band in L.A. and "isn't it a shame about Jim?"

I have a very special reason for liking The Doors. It's highly personal, so much so that many would simply not understand: I enjoy listening to their records.

Sure, there are plenty of things that come through when listening to their records that add an air of intrigue to the experience that make the listener want to know more about them. From the time I saw the depiction of Jim Morrison in the Rock Dreams book and (this is in the late 70s) read a couple of articles in rock rags that were leading the archeology into his legend I developed an interest. I found the story compellingly dark and involving but still had only heard a few of the hit singles that local radio played (mainly as they hadn't quite caught up to the crud that they were meant to be playing at the time). Anyway, then I saw Apocalypse Now and went out and bought the albums. From that point I was a Doors fan. Still am.  When the box set with the remasters coupled with the DVD-Audio hi-res albums came out I went through the lot all over again (listening to one of them now, in fact). But there's a problem with things like When You're Strange. It bugs me.

What I'm hearing as I type this, as the title track of LA Woman shuffles and rustles through my headphones is how good the band was as a band.  They are a tight unit that allow a lot of looseness in the flow of the songs as well as stiffening up when it needs to be strident, cold or harsh. They're a band that had done a lot of playing together, knew each other well and could really deliver on their promises. They're a unit, no one's pushing in front, just a big shifting cloud of pooled skill and vision.

So why with every depiction of them on film, documentary or fictional, does the story splat against the wall as Jim Morrison: Lust for Death? Oliver Stone's hagiographic intensity defeated his talents as a filmmaker so he ended up with a series of great scenes gaffer taped together with some frankly goofy inventions (Robbie Kreiger's character: "Oh man, you get all the babes and I get all the dawgs." or Ray Manzarek - Dale Cooper in a wizard wig: "OK guys, give me a few mintues" before he comes up with the organ riff for Light My Fire. YES!). And this one wants you to believe the band virtually got the love generation going and rode the great tide of anti establishment protest on great waves of liquid LSD all the way to the tragic demise of the fragile dark poet with the mic. One of the final images from the lashings of rare footage in the film shows Jim in slow motion, walking the bowsprit of a yacht as though risking all for adventure. Well, all I could think was that whoever shot the footage had already just done that.

Look, Morrison was clearly intelligent and talented, charismatic and intriguing as a mind especially in the context of rock music when the charisma is all most of the greats ever extend to. It's just that every time I listen to one of the albums now, I hear a band. The De Cillo film attempts to spend a little more time on the other three (ie the ones you actually hear most when you play the records) and while it doesn't go down the path to purgatory that the embarrassingly slavish tome No One Gets Out of Here Alive did it still derails itself as soon as Jim starts falling apart. Compare this to The Beatles. A good basic band, sure, but all the really innovative and adventurous stuff was done by Lennon and McCartney. All four fabs get pretty much equal limelight in any major depiction.

And really, who doesn't already know this? Is it meant to be an essay (there are no interviews with the surviving players, just Johnny and a mic through the speakers)? In what, exactly? Fame? The corruptibility of fame? Jim himself? What? De Cillo uses the rare footage, some seamless reconstructions with a ringer for El Jimbo on a Mr Mojo Risin road trip. The narration is pretty linear and functional until a kind of goofy reverence surfaces and starts taking over. This fulfills the ominous opening of stark white font on black during the credits and a very slowly rising soundtrack of various human voices and music which fades into a screen filling sunrise. Look, everyone, this is important. Come on, look. Meh.

My recommendation is that if you want to view what made The Doors special go to the live stuff as there is a fair bit of it available locally on DVD. There's a pretty good 80s docco with the three surviving band members which I think was organised by the Sugarman/Hopkins book and uses the same title: No One Gets Out of Here Alive. And best of all thhere's the Classic Albums episode on the first album which offers a window into the working life of the band (and treats them as a band). But put the Soundstage Performances disc into your player and watch as they work their way through the serpentine folds of The End for an audience, each one responding to the other and together creating a big mysterious landscape of words and music. It's really fine stuff.

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