Tuesday, April 19, 2011

When You’re Strange (Eagle Vision/Dick Wolf Productions, 2009)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was When You’re Strange, a recently produced documentary on the Doors from, of all people, Dick Wolf, the mastermind behind Law and Order and about the last person I would have thought would be interested in making a movie, documentary or otherwise, about major players in the 1960’s counterculture. Despite one silly conceit — shots of Jim Morrison (actually an actor playing him), supposedly driving around southern California tuning his car radio and hearing a news report of Morrison’s death, intercut with the rest of the footage — When You’re Strange is actually an excellent film, well directed by Tom DeCillo with a commentary delivered by Johnny Depp without a hint of his own native strangeness. To his credit, DeCillo manages to suggest the 1960’s in his visual concepts without going overboard and making the movie self-consciously “psychedelic” — just as Oliver Stone did in his 1991 biopic, which I think is the best film yet made about a major rock musician (and let’s face it, though the Doors tried to maintain the idea that they were a band and all four members were equal, they were Jim Morrison’s show and any book or film about them is going to focus mainly about him — just as almost nobody bought the two albums the surviving Doors made as a three-piece band after Morrison’s death, Other Voices and Full Circle), just as Clint Eastwood’s Bird remains the best film ever made about a major jazz musician.

The film mentions that the Doors began when Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek met when they were both studying film at UCLA; what it doesn’t mention is that one of their teachers was Josef von Sternberg, the famous director who had discovered Marlene Dietrich and who, especially in his seven films with her, had pushed the boundaries of popular entertainment in the early 1930’s much the way the Doors, in a different medium, did in the late 1960’s. (It was due to the influence of the director of The Blue Angel that the Doors covered the Kurt Weill/Bertolt Brecht “Alabama Song” from The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny on their first album — and did it superbly; though the song was written for a high-voiced soprano Morrison managed to get the edgy, sickly quality it needed whereas later rockers who tried it, like David Bowie and David Johansen, drowned it in pseudo-cabaret schmaltz.) It shows some unusual film clips — probably because of their cinematic background, the Doors documented themselves on video more than virtually any other major band of their time — including rough rehearsal footage (probably shot on black-and-white video) of “Light My Fire” and “The End,” along with the clips everyone knows like the controversial appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in which Morrison, instructed to sing a substitute lyric for the line “Girl, we couldn’t get much higher,” duly sang the substitute in the dress rehearsal but sang the song come scritto on the show itself. (The year before, Sullivan had similarly ordered Mick Jagger to change the line in the Rolling Stones’ hit “Let’s Spend the Night Together” to “Let’s Spend Some Time Together,” but the savvier Jagger merely mumbled something vaguely in between the two — so the Stones continued to get on the Sullivan show while the Doors were blacklisted and got only one other commercial TV appearance in their whole career, on the rule-breaking Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.)

The point the film makes is that the Doors’ music remains very, very strange, partly because the four members all had different backgrounds — keyboard player Ray Manzarek had studied classical piano and drifted into jazz before taking up rock; guitarist Robbie Krieger had started playing flamenco and taken up bottle-neck blues guitar; and drummer John Densmore was a jazz player whose favorite musicians were Charles Mingus and John Coltrane. (Densmore’s jazz training is evident in the number of Doors’ songs for which he uses cymbals, rather than actual drums, to set the basic rhythmic pulse, the way jazz drummers have been doing since the 1940’s.) At a time when most rock bands played in pretty simple time signatures and most rock singers phrased right on top of the beat, the Doors explored polyrhythms (no doubt Densmore’s listening to Coltrane had left him influenced by Coltrane’s drummer, the great Elvin Jones!) and offbeat times, often having more than one rhythm in the same song. They tended to be a bit deficient in the bass lines since they didn’t use a bass player — Manzarek played the bass lines with his feet on his organ pedals (not, as DeCillo’s narration has it, on the keys of his electric-piano keyboard), which was adequate for live performances, but the last three Doors’ studio albums (The Soft Parade, Morrison Hotel and L.A. Woman) all used session bassists to bolster the bottom — but their music remains complex and textural, and it’s an index of how far ahead of their time they were that their albums still sell a million copies a year, 40 years after Morrison’s death effectively ended the group.

What DeCillo’s film does is effectively show the contrasts that drove Morrison — sophisticated, imagistic poet vs. drunken lout — though it does not mention one that came through strongly in the 1980 Jerry Hopkins/Danny Sugerman biography No One Here Gets Out Alive: Morrison was quite strongly homophobic — on more than one occasion he beat up Gay men who made passes at him, and on the Absolutely Live album (the only live recording of the Doors released during Morrison’s lifetime) he complains that he hates playing New York because “the only people who rush the stage are guys” — yet many of his culture heroes, including the French poet Arthur Rimbaud, were Gay. What it does show, as did the recent John Lennon documentary LennonNYC, was that for all the drugs that became associated with the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle in the 1960’s — marijuana, LSD, cocaine and, eventually, heroin — the one that most seriously and negatively impacted the musicians’ creativity and ability to function was a legal drug, alcohol.

It was drink, not drugs, that led to many of the most famous Morrison flame-outs, notably the infamous incident in Miami in 1969 in which he talked his way through a concert, babbling on and on and on until, according to some accounts, he ended one of his monologues by saying, “Ladies and gentlemen — my cock!,” and whipped it out on stage. He was ultimately prosecuted and convicted of putting on a lewd performance — witnesses differ as to whether he actually dropped his drawers but no photo of this much-photographed event shows him doing so — though one photo that did get him into trouble was one of him kneeling in front of guitarist Krieger, with his mouth open, which was listed in the indictment as a “simulation of oral copulation.” (Three years later, in 1972, David Bowie made a similar gesture a trademark — and he was legally unscathed.)

I happen to have an insight into the Morrison Miami incident because a year before it happened, in 1968, I had met Alberto Gianquinto, pianist for the James Cotton Blues Band. He told me that the Cotton band had opened for the Doors in Detroit the previous year and Morrison had started to take his shirt off in the middle of the show. No one thought much of it — people just assumed that he was hot and took his shirt off to be cooler — until he started undoing his belt and taking off his pants, whereupon two of the Doors’ roadies quickly walked up to him and got him off stage. So the Miami incident had nothing to do with the Living Theatre (whose production Paradise Now, featuring the actors stripping to their underwear and then complaining that the law won’t allow them to get totally naked, Morrison had seen in L.A. before going out on that ill-fated tour) or any artistic message; Morrison had simply got drunk on stage again, and that night the roadies weren’t as quick to respond as they had been in Detroit.

I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area at a time when San Francisco was considered the home of psychedelic rock, and San Franciscans were rough on anybody from anywhere else in the country attempting to play in “our” style — but though the Jefferson Airplane’s music still holds up pretty well, the American bands from the 1960’s whose music stands above all others today are the Velvet Underground from New York and the Doors from Los Angeles — not only because they focused on the darker sides of human existence and rejected the mindless hippie optimism a lot of the San Francisco bands projected, but because they were simply more interesting musicians playing more musically and lyrically sophisticated songs. The fact that Morrison was an accomplished poet before he joined a band — in fact, the first Doors’ song, “Moonlight Drive,” was based on a lyric Morrison had written as a fantasy of a rock song — gave his images a weight and texture that, of all the 1960’s songwriters who tried for this sort of poetic abstraction in their lyrics, only Bob Dylan matched.

The Doors remain a legend, and one interesting story told in the film was that the other three Doors agreed to allow a car company to use “Light My Fire” for a commercial — it was one of those times when Morrison was incommunicado — but when he came back and found out about it, he was incensed, and Depp’s narration over the closing credits mention that to date none of the Doors’ songs have been used in a commercial. (The reason for that merits explanation: when the Doors drew up their incorporation papers in 1966, Morrison insisted that all decisions involving the band had to be made by a consensus of all four members. Though Morrison died in 1971, the consensus requirement still applies to the surviving three — and though Ray Manzarek and Robbie Krieger have been interested in licensing the Doors’ songs to advertisers, John Densmore has consistently blocked consensus and used his veto power to keep that from happening. Good for him — though it cost him the gig as drummer when Manzarek and Krieger tried to put together a Doors’ reunion band, with Ian Astbury as vocalist, in 2000; instead they hired Stewart Copeland, drummer for the Police, only he broke his arm in mid-tour and rather than hire a temporary replacement until Copeland could play again, they fired him outright.)

The film even touches on the myth that Morrison didn’t die — which seemed to get a lot of currency partly because he was buried in a sealed casket and no one was permitted to examine the body once he was declared dead, and partly because his idol, Rimbaud, had quit writing at the age of 20 and lived in seclusion for the remaining 17 years of his life. (Morrison’s girlfriend, Pamela Courson, had long tried to get him to give up the Doors and concentrate on writing poetry. The reason he was in Paris when he died was that he and Courson had moved there intending to do just that.) When You’re Strange barely mentions the other (major) woman in Morrison’s life, Jazz & Pop publisher Patricia Kennealy, a practicing witch who claimed to have married Morrison in a Wiccan ceremony — Kennealy got a lot more “play” in the Oliver Stone biopic (in which Val Kilmer played Morrison, Meg Ryan played Courson and Kathleen Quinlan played Kennealy) and after watching it I wrote that one could see Courson as Morrison’s Cynthia Powell and Kennealy as his Yoko Ono — but one could nit-pick this movie for the inevitable omissions in a 90-minute documentary; it’s still a major look at a major band featuring a fascinating front man whose contradictions encompass many of the competing forces within rock ’n’ roll itself.