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Originally published April 8, 2010 at 3:00 PM | Page modified April 8, 2010 at 3:04 PM

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'When You're Strange' is both standard Doors worship and valuable documentary

"When You're Strange" is a new documentary that tries to show The Doors as cultural archetype.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 2.5 stars

'When You're Strange,' a documentary by Tom DiCillo. 90 minutes. Rated R for some sexual content including references, nudity, drug material and language. Grand Illusion.

The Doors are simultaneously rock 'n' roll's ultimate archetype and ultimate cliché. If you're a music fan, you've probably migrated from one polarity to the other as you've aged.

"When You're Strange," a new documentary by director Tom DiCillo, moves the needle back toward archetype: As presented via 90 minutes of rare archival footage, the story of The Doors is the story of the '60s — the story of liberation and excess and their consequences. Between its unwavering intent and some terribly hackneyed narration by the ever-sagacious Johnny Depp, "When You're Strange" walks a similar line — the film is both standard biopic lionizing and valuable piece of cultural history. Maybe it's the torrid nature of its subject that engenders such intense ambivalence.

"When You're Strange" comes along at a strange time: almost 40 years after The Doors' dissolution, almost 20 years since Oliver Stone's overwrought feature film "The Doors," several years into the total recombination of the music industry. In 2010, it's hard to conceive a rock band being more than a rock band, instead being a force of social evolution, a pied piper leading a generation to a new understanding of itself. Even teenagers are too cynical for that now.

And so footage from The Doors' concerts is like a vision of another world. Handheld, grainy, jerky, this stuff hasn't before come to light and could never be equaled by Hollywood; taken from home movies, art films, and footage by professional crews between 1965-1971, it must be the reason this film is happening now. The concert scenes have a sense of looming danger and trampled taboos; lead singer Jim Morrison is surrounded by cops onstage at every venue because nobody knows what to do with him or the primal madness he elicits from his audience. Riots erupt, kids dance and fight and remove clothing.

In hindsight (and on paper) it all seems old hat, but with savvy editing of intense footage, DiCillo puts us there, onstage, backstage, in the studio, and we're as intoxicated as Morrison's audience. Almost.

DiCillo wants us to believe that The Doors surpassed mere entertainment. It all seems impossible to swallow now, but his film makes a powerful case.

Jonathan Zwickel:

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