Sundance Film Festival

Dealing with the Doors: Very Strange Indeed

WHEN YOU'RE STRANGE
WHEN YOU’RE STRANGE

Unless you are ardently obsessed with the Doors, be glad you’re not Tom DiCillo.

Festival veteran DiCillo’s first feature-length documentary is WHEN YOU’RE STRANGE, a film that’s meant to depict the legendary band–and not just late legendary lead singer Jim Morrison.

DiCillo says that dealing with the band members was at times harrowing. “The Doors are like an extended dysfunctional family and if you don’t know the dysfunction, you’re completely lost,” he says. “I guess because I come from a dysfunctional family myself, I was able to recognize it.” He dealt with it by being “really honest and clear,” and by conveying to the band members that he wasn’t just out to say, “What was it like with Jim?”

Even interviewing guitarist Robby Krieger and keyboard player Ray Manzarek has its challenges. To be fair, Krieger is polite, if a bit shy, while Manzerek choses to challenge. He starts out with this useful explanation of his early impression of DiCillo’s concept for the film: “He had an idea to warp time and space in a shamanistic, American Indian way, involving Jim Morrison and his shamanistic inclinations.”

The band members have waged long and expensive legal wars with each other. While Krieger and Manzerek have wanted to tour using the Doors name and to license Doors’ songs for use in commercials, drummer John Densmore (who cooperated with the film) has resisted every effort to commercialize the band–rejecting multimillion-dollar offers. That was the position Morrison took many years ago, though one can’t help but wonder whether he’d have changed his mind by now. DiCillo isn’t neutral on the question. He says he fought “intense battles” to keep the last line in his film: “As of this date, none of the Doors music has been used in a car commercial.”

WHEN YOU'RE STRANGE director Tom DiCillo
WHEN YOU’RE STRANGE director Tom DiCillo

He says Densmore’s position is one that he respects, though he can see the other side. “Bob Dylan, for Christ’s sake–didn’t he do a song for Victoria’s Secret?” he says.

Given all this emotional freight, I ask Krieger and Manzarek about the hard parts of participating in this film. “There was no hard part,” Krieger replies. “It was fun.”

“That’s exactly what I was going to say,” Manzarek adds.

Then I ask about that car commercial line. Krieger hesitates. “That was kind of a stickler of a point,” he says.

Manzarek says using the Doors name and licensing the songs is about keeping the music alive. “Ever since that Ford commercial by–what’s his name?–Bob Seger–it did wonders for his career. Now that you can’t get on radio any more, I don’t think there’s anything wrong if you can get the right commercial.” Manzarek says he heard Muddy Waters music in an ad for beer. “Muddy Waters on my television!” he says. “Fabulous.”

I ask whether this film finally captures the truth about the Doors. Krieger and Manzarek say that’s not possible. People are never going to understand the Doors story,” Krieger says. “So far, this is the definitive version.”

“I love all the different versions of the Doors story,” Manzarek says. “I think it makes a multifacted diamond in which the truth exists only in the songs.”