An homage to a '60s rock god

Posted: April 09, 2010

Devotees of Jim Morrison and the Doors probably already know this, but here's one of the goofier revelations to emerge from Tom DiCillo's terrific documentary, When You're Strange: "Mr. Mojo Risin," a line repeated over and over in the hit "L.A. Woman," was an anagram for . . . Jim Morrison.

Whoa. Heavy, dude.

The Doors and Morrison, alias Mr. Mojo Risin, alias the Lizard King, were together just 54 months - less than five years. The band, formed in 1965, sold more than 80 million albums. As Johnny Depp tells us in When You're Strange, almost a million of their discs are still sold every year - 39 years after Morrison's death, in a bathtub, in Paris.

In the pantheon of '60s rock gods, Morrison is right up there with Hendrix and Joplin, iconic casualties of the psychedelic era.

Written and directed by DiCillo, and featuring a wealth of rare, revealing footage, When You're Strange offers a worshipful but insightful portrait of the group - centered, of course, on its charismatic front man, whose rumbling vocals and poetic rambles defined such hits as "Light My Fire," "People Are Strange," "Riders on the Storm," and "The End."

When You're Strange incorporates scenes from a 1969 film, HWY, that Morrison - a UCLA film student before he was a rock star - directed and starred in. It's a genius move by DiCillo (the indie director of Living in Oblivion and Box of Moonlight), establishing a narrative framework for all the concert footage, photo montages, and news clips to come. There's Morrison, bearded and lean, loping across a trippy desertscape, hunched over a dying coyote, pulling into a gas station in a black Mustang. Vivid and, yes, cinematic, these scenes bring Morrison back from the dead. He becomes the host of his own memorial.

"At 16, he's already reading Nietzsche, Rimbaud, and William Blake," offers narrator Depp, over photos of a handsome teenage Morrison. "He's also obsessed with Elvis Presley."

There's more of that telling and not terribly ironic voice-over, veering close to self-parody as Depp intones stuff like "but if the band has a surreal fairground air, it is Morrison who is the frenzied trapeze artist," and "you can't burn out if you're not on fire." But Morrison's verse wasn't exactly laced with irony, either. If you're going to be reverent, may as well pull out the stops.

And when the music's over, turn out the lights.


When You're Strange *** (out of four stars)

Directed by Tom DiCillo. With Jim Morrison, John Densmore, Robby Krieger, and Ray Manzarek. Distributed by Rhino Entertainment.

Running time: 1 hour, 30 mins.

Parent's guide: R (profanity, drug references, adult themes).

Playing at: Friday night, free at the Piazza at Schmidts in Northern Liberties; Saturday through Thursday at the PUFF Movie House, and all week at the Showcase at the Ritz Center/NJ.


Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com.

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