Watching the documentary ‘When You’re Strange’ recently spurred on this line of thought. It’s hard to believe how much, and how fundamentally, my ‘fandom’ concerning Jim Morrison has changed through the years and along with it, how much I’ve changed as well. This blog is part review, but that inevitably led to a good number of other musings as well.
You’d be hard pressed to find a more dedicated fan of The Doors than myself. As I’ve grown older, it’s moved from ‘blind hero worship’ to ‘believer in the mythos’ to ‘respect for the artists’ and an understanding of their humanity. I’d also say that you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who’s read more of the available materials on Jim Morrison’s life, because let’s face it, when someone says they’re a fan of The Doors they spend most of their time discussing Morrison.
Or to put it in clearer terms, when I was 16 I thought that Oliver Stone’s movie was a masterpiece. When I was in my 20s I thought it was a great film about the inner soul of a poet with a few inaccuracies. Now I see it as an execrable example of post-hippie bullsh** with a great soundtrack and a nostalgic remembrance of when the world seemed so different. It would be really easy for me to start beating up on Oliver Stone, hippies and biopics in general, but I’ll save that up for another time.
I’ve read everything from the mandatory indoctrination literature (No One Here Gets Out Alive) to the exhaustive and reasonably honest biographical tomes (Break On Through: The Life and Death of Jim Morrison) to the extremely obscure and well researched labors of love (The Lizard King Was Here: The Life and Times of Jim Morrison in Alexandria, Virginia), to everything in between. As I’ve grown up, I’ve learned that those heroes I held so dear were men like me, and perhaps more than any other like me was Jim Morrison. The deep inner conflict, the painful search for identity, the desire to be the center of attention and the difficulty with obsession and addiction (only cigarettes for me, nothing more spectacular, thank God) speak to me on a level that will resonate forever.
Some of those demons I overcame with time and effort and a little bit of prayer as well as some profound understanding on the part of a few brave enough to love me through the turbulent years. Some of them I will wrestle with until the day I die. And some of them definitely made Morrison’s lyrics and poetry, and the band’s music, speak to me. I doubt I’m alone on that front.
On the plus side, the new documentary at least attempts to flesh out the lives of the other band members. Sadly, there’s no real new material unearthed here either, though the new photos and use of relatively recent unearthed footage from Manzarek’s college film class days is worthwhile. Still, nothing with a wow factor for the well-read and researched fan.
Perhaps most frustrating is that, like most sources, they pay no attention to Absolutely Live, which is arguably one of the best live albums produced in the annals of rock. Seriously, I understand that talking about Paul Rothchild’s producing skills isn’t the most thrilling, but The Doors owe a whole lot of their success to them. He was basically a silent fifth member, corraling the raw energy which was Morrison long enough to produce some truly brilliant music. Let’s give the man his due, and let’s satisfy the curiosity of fans who want to know what went into the process and how much input the band had in song selection and flow, or whether Rothchild was able to create out of whole cloth a complete masterwork.
And just like every other portrait of Morrison and the band they ignore the fact that his legal woes led to the release of 13, the greatest hits album that time forgot. My strongest memory of it is that a tape copy of it was given to me by my pal Ryan when we were both…wait for it…thirteen.
Also frustrating is that, while the movie retreads the familiar ground that Morrison wasn’t able to read music and the band was particularly adept at moving with his improvisation while keeping him within certain boundaries, they fail to cover the fact that Morrison was attempting to teach himself to play piano and legitimately trying to grow as an artist despite his own shortcomings. There’s actually extant evidence of this, too, released on the old 4-disc boxed set from the 1990s; the song is called Orange County Suite and it’s haunting, mature and a prime example that when Morrison was calm and focused he was all sorts of brilliant.
I would have, as a fan, loved to see more of an examination of what was needed to compose the albums. For example, why include the difficult-to-love ‘Do It’ or anachronistic ‘Easy Ride’ on The Soft Parade and not ‘Who Scared You?’, which was included on the first posthumous Greatest Hits album, Weird Scenes Inside the Gold Mine, and which was much more in the vein of a Doors classic? As a side note, Weird Scenes… featured some of the best cover artwork for an album I’ve seen from that time period.
It would have been nice as well to see what fan reaction in the modern day was when they released the remasters and restored the original lyrics to Break on Through and The End. Was there any backlash? An insistence to leave things as they were and not change the first album as we had known it for forty years?
As a final criticism, since the documentary was supposedly to deal with the band as a whole, why didn’t they cover the two albums the band released after Morrison’s death to fulfill the Elektra contract? At the very least it would have shown how as much as the band had kept Morrison going through his addictions, his creative drive did serve as the stylistic glue of the band.
Now before you think I hated this film, I didn’t. If anything I appreciate that a more honest look at the life of Jim Morrison and The Doors has been committed to film as sort of a belated apology for the damage that Oliver Stone did. Seeing restored footage of Morrison’s abortive film HWY was a treat as well.
It’s more just the pain of knowing that they still got things wrong despite the flood of information out there that would at least help present a more balanced and hopefully accurate view. But in the world of post-Michael Moore/Morgan Spurlock documentaries, at least the following things are true:
- The director of the documentary doesn’t appear in it in an attempt to glorify himself;
- The narration, while done by Johnny Depp, doesn’t call attention to itself and is instead a really good piece of work;
- Acknowledgment is made of the Herculean efforts of the band to keep Morrison’s sh** together for him;
- Acknowledgment is made also of the fact that Morrison’s drinking was not the romantic pastime of a poet but the out-of-control addiction of a broken soul who destroyed his friendships because of it;
- While there are sins of omission, the filmmaker at least appears to have tried to be even handed and not fallen into hero worship or statement making;
- Unlike Stone, no attempt is made to turn Morrison into a posthumous political hero – he was a talented writer with a real gift and some deep problems;
- Unlike Stone, it’s not hero worship, it’s an attempt to relate the life of a real man to the people watching;
- The whole dead Indians on the highway thing is overlooked because let’s face it, it may have just been a case of Jim Morrison screwing with people for his own amusement.
So yeah, spend the time going into it and seeing it. It’s a fun ride. Just know that if you want the full story…even documentaries aren’t the whole truth.