In a spooky and powerful way, Jim Morrison – the long-dead lead singer of the Sixties rock phenom The Doors – comes alive in the new documentary, When You’re Strange. Director Tom DiCillo incorporates footage from an experimental film that Morrison -- a UCLA film major -- shot in 1969. Called HWY, and starring Morrison as a sinister hitchhiker thumbing his way across a So-Cal desert, the film looks like it was made yesterday: sun-burnished 35mm camera work, cool vintage cars (a black Sixties Mustang), and Morrison, lean and bearded, in retro-cool tie-dye.
“People look at that and their first instinct is, `Oh my god, it’s incredible!’” says DiCillo, whose When You’re Strange debuts Friday at the Piazza at Schmidts in Northern Liberties, before moving over for a week-long run at the PUFF Movie House, 725 N. 4th Street. “And then their second instinct is to think, `That can’t be Jim. They immediately think, ` Oh, they got an actor.’ And that’s just been so frustrating for me, because what I thought would happen when I discovered that film and put it in, was that people would go `Wow, this is amazing, where did it come from?’ It’s not a reenactment with some Morrison lookalike.”
Narrated by Johnny Depp, When You’re Strange chronicles the crazy, controversial trip taken by Morrison, John Densmore, Robby Krieger and Ray Manzarek, from those early hit singles and albums to Morrison’s increasingly erratic, drug-and-drink-fueled behavior, his brushes with the law and busts for public indecency, to his death in a bathtub in Paris. I’ll have more of my interview with DiCillo in Sunday’s On Movies column, but here’s the director (Johnny Suede, Living In Oblivion) on discovering that HWY footage and figuring out how to use it in the doc: “I realized that this figure of Jim wandering through the desert could almost be like the spirit of Morrison come back to life, and taking us on the journey of the film and trying to figure out its meaning.”
The Morrison HWY footage was like stumbling onto a gold mine, DiCillo says. “You can tap into it anywhere and come up with a rich nugget. It was like I had the most incredible dailies of any movie I’d ever made!”