Breaking on through the story of the Doors | AspenTimes.com
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Breaking on through the story of the Doors

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado
Paul FerraraSixties rock group the Doors - Robbie Krieger, Ray Manzarek, John Densmore and Jim Morrison, left to right - are the subject of the documentary "When You're Strange," showing Sunday, March 21 at Aspen's Wheeler Opera House.
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ASPEN – When John Beug, a recording executive with an extensive history in music-related videos, and Peter Jankowski, a producer of the “Law & Order” series on TV, set about making a project on the Doors, they knew what they didn’t want. They didn’t care to make a TV-oriented or straight-to-DVD documentary stuffed with talking-head experts and the standard story line of rise, excess and fall. “I have a primal dislike of some of the biographies of rock bands,” Beug said by phone from Los Angeles. “It’s not all about sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, and a bunch of old guys sitting around looking like old pirates, talking about the good old days.”And they wanted to avoid anything like Oliver Stone’s 1991 movie “The Doors,” which they saw as an over-amped, clichd portrait of the late ’60s, with a suspect factual basis. “Without casting too many aspersions, I wasn’t a fan,” Beug said. “It was a bit of a cartoon of the period.”What the producers wanted was something that felt like a genuine film project. So they reached out to an authentic filmmaker. Tom DiCillo’s career has been marked by narrative films about artists struggling to make their art without compromises. His 1995 “Living in Oblivion” starred Steve Buscemi as an independent filmmaker on the set of a no-budget project headed for disaster; the film earned a handful of awards including the screenwriting award at Sundance. In 2006, DiCillo again teamed with Buscemi in “Delirious,” about a photographer struggling with his artistic ideals, the need to make a living, and his friendships. In some ways, those characters are close reflections of DiCillo himself, who also writes the screenplays for his films. The job of an independent filmmaker, said the 56-year-old from his home on New York’s Upper West Side, he said, is “being on the phone, writing emails, for two years, waiting for some miracle to happen, so you can make your film.” Beug referred to DiCillo as “the prince of independent filmmaking.”Among the projects DiCillo accepted in order to make a living was an out-of-the-blue invitation to direct “Law & Order: Criminal Intent.” To his surprise, he enjoyed the experience, and made four episodes. “As a filmic exercise, it’s great. You have to think quickly, film quickly,” he said. DiCillo did a good enough job that when Jankowski went looking for a director for a documentary on the Doors, DiCillo got the call.DiCillo had never made a documentary before, but he says he immediately took on the project in large part because of the components he had to work with. One was the vision of Beug and Jankowski, who assured him they didn’t want a quickie, formula piece like those told over and over on VH1’s “Behind the Music.” “The idea was, this could be an interesting exercise in filmmaking. That was really the goal – to make something that feels less like a documentary, but to tell a story,” Beug said. “People who enjoy films about music are becoming more sophisticated and they want a higher quality of filmmaking. He offered as an example “Concert for George,” a documentary of a 2002 concert tribute to George Harrison that Beug was involved with. The film had a theatrical release before winning a Grammy for best long-form video.”When You’re Strange,” the documentary of the Doors and their late, charismatic lead singer Jim Morrison, is likewise headed for big screens across the country and in Europe. The film, which was shown over the last year at a series of major festivals and was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2009, opens next month on a dozen screens in the States, and in Europe in May. Aspen audiences get a sneak preview with a special screening on Sunday, March 21 at the Wheeler Opera House. Beug will be in attendance to introduce the film and participate in a post-screening Q&A session. ••••The other basic element that attracted DiCillo was the film footage – loads of it, considering the Doors’ relatively short run, from 1966-1971, and that they predated the digital era when virtually every step of every semi-prominent band is documented. Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek, the band’s singer and keyboardist, respectively, were UCLA film students before forming the Doors. When the two launched the group, with guitarist Robbie Krieger and drummer John Densmore, they enlisted another film student, Paul Ferrara, to shoot concerts, studio sessions, rehearsals and more.”They had all this amazing raw footage shot between 1966 and ’71,” DiCillo said. “I’d get it in dribs and drabs and they’d ask if I had a concept for the film. I said, ‘I need to see all the footage. Because the footage is amazing.”Two weeks in, realizing the extent of the project, DiCillo relocated to Los Angeles. He ended up staying eight months, putting in eight-hour days taking account of the footage and what emerged from it – the story of the Doors, and the personality of its leader, Morrison.DiCillo said he used the raw footage “as if it was dailies from a movie I had shot, and was piecing [the film] together from that.” DiCillo had been a Doors fan from his teenage years, but he started to look at the band from a fresh perspective. “I’d go back to my apartment and freak out: ‘So much has been written about this band – What are you going to say?’ I thought, the only way I could do it was, make this story as personal as possible – like they were characters in one of my own stories.”Except DiCillo didn’t treat the band members – whom he consulted with when writing the script – as though he could take liberties with them. In fact, the entirety of “When You’re Strange” is made up of vintage footage – concerts, behind-the-scenes clips, recording sessions and candid shots. DiCillo also weaves in an artistic element by using scenes from “HWY,” a cryptic film Morrison made of himself, with a desert highway as a backdrop. The only other component of “When You’re Strange” is the low-key narration provided by Johnny Depp.The exclusive use of vintage footage – including extensive scenes of the notorious concerts that turned into near-riots, with more police than musicians onstage – gives the film a dynamic energy, as well as a unique feel. “When You’re Strange” doesn’t remind you of any other rock documentary. DiCillo sees some kinship with the work of the Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Errol Morris. “They don’t feel anything like documentaries. They feel like emotional experiences. He creates moods with emotion and drama,” DiCillo said of Morris.••••Inevitably, it is two aspects of the Doors – the personality of Morrison, and the music itself – that are the emotional touchstones of “When You’re Strange.” Of the first of those, DiCillo felt he had to discard the profiles that had been previously created. Which really wasn’t so difficult, since the portraits of Morrison tended to fall into one of two categories, both of them unrealistically extreme.”If you follow one source, he was this drunken asshole,” DiCillo said. “Others think he was a god, beyond reproach. That’s a massive extreme.”Without straining in the effort, “When You’re Strange” goes a good way toward humanizing Morrison – which is to say it portrays him as both the uncommonly charismatic poet, and as the bloated, drugged-out rock fatality who died, most likely of a drug overdose though no autopsy was performed, in a Paris hotel room, at the age of 27. It also captures the person between those extremes, as the singer trying to write songs and make albums.”My contribution to the Doors was to show them as truthfully as possible, as they were,” DiCillo said. “I wasn’t pressured to show him as this crazed, drug-addicted genius. I could show Morrison at 6 years old, laughing.”DiCillo says Morrison’s descent was reminiscent of a theme he had previously explored, in “Delirious,” a film about paparazzi and stardom. “It’s the effect that fame has on people,” he said. “It’s very, very dangerous when you get it in this degree – and Morrison had it. Michael Jackson had it to the ultimate degree. It’s a force that takes superhuman effort to comprehend.”Morrison was the perfect thing at the perfect time – he was very smart; he had a unique sexuality, not a pretty-boy. He was crazy. You see a man who instantly knew how to make that work for him. He knew how to manipulate it. My theory is, it gave him such a rush, he couldn’t fight it. He was an artist; he wanted to be a poet, a filmmaker, not a rock star. But how do you turn your back on it?”The music Morrison created with the Doors endures as something different. While wildly popular, the band had anti-commercial tendencies. Even on its self-titled first album, several songs – including what would become their signature tune, “Light My Fire” – were far too long for radio play. The structure of their songs could be complex; the subject matter was often difficult. (“The End” was, in part, about the Oedipal complex.) The band had no bass player; Manzarek played bass lines on the organ. And Krieger’s guitar work introduced flamenco and Middle Eastern sounds into the songs.Here is the strength of “When You’re Strange.” It delves into four people as they try to make uncompromised art – much as they do in most of DiCillo’s films – and examines the fallout of that effort.”They all seemed to have an intuitive and instinctive desire to make the music they wanted to make,” DiCillo said. “They approached it like artists. You hear the structure of the songs, the way they recorded, it was breathtaking. If you take any other band from that period that was as popular, it sounds like your grandparents’ music. As an independent filmmaker, I really identified with that.”stewart@aspentimes.com


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