Keyboard player Ray Manzarek is now 70; drummer John Densmore is 65 and guitarist Robby Krieger, at 64, is the baby of the band. They are - to put it plainly - senior citizens, but as young men they made up three-fourths of The Doors, once one of the world’s most-popular and innovative bands.
Their story comes to TV tomorrow (Wed. May. 12) on PBS’s American Masters, in When You’re Strange, a 81-minute feature documentary from director Tom DiCillo, narrated by actor Johnny Depp and produced by TV leviathan Dick Wolf (Law & Order). The film features a plethora of rare and previously unseen film footage, shot by Paul Ferrara, once the band’s unofficial ‘official’ photographer.
When You’re Strange is worth watching, but for fans looking for a definitive work on the band and insight into what led to legendary lead singer Jim Morrison’s death in 1971 at the age of 27, there really isn’t much in the film’s script that’s new.
Tons of glorious music? Check. Intriguing archival footage? Check, reams of it, including the movie Highway, made by Morrison in the late 1960s. (Photo, from Highway) But finally a revealing look into the band’s internal dynamics? Not so much. New interviews? None. And while the film’s hit-filled soundtrack benefits from having the participation of the three surviving band members, the film’s weakness likely springs from the same.
All three surviving band members signed off on the film, though it’s rare to see the three together. When Densmore and Wolf met with reporters in Los Angeles earlier this year to promote the film, Manzarek and Krieger were notably absent. They still perform together, but Densmore rarely joins them. In fact, he sued the pairing in 2003 for touring without him as The Doors.
“There’s four Doors: me, and Jim and Ray and Robby. Not Robby, Ian, Fred, Tom and Bill. But that’s all straightened out now,” he told reporters. “[Jim’s] dead and I want to try to honour my ancestor.”
Remarking on the band’s lasting appeal, he added, “I thought if we lasted 10 years. That would be great. You know, I’ll walk down the street, and I’ll see a kid with The Doors on his T-shirt and [think] ‘This is odd.’ “
The film includes highlights from the band’s early TV appearances, including The Ed Sullivan Show and The Smothers Brothers Show, and tracks their ups, downs, and eventual coming apart, largely due to Morrison’s drug and alcohol abuse. “This is the real deal, isn’t it?” says Densmore. “And there’s some humour in here and lightness. You see a young Jim, and that pleases me, because he was a blast in the beginning, before his self-destruction kicked in. He became an alcoholic really. So it’s more well-rounded that way, and that pleases me.”
Morrison comes across as being waif-like, mischievous, both confident and shy, and charming. One of the film’s more interesting moments comes when the camera captures Manzarek saying to Morrison, who’s ill and struggling with drug addiction, “We need you to stay in the game.” Morrison replies, “But what if I don’t like the game?”
It’s not clear if Manzarek is expressing concern for his bandmate or for his own future. And while Depp observes in voice-over, “the band members didn’t know how to help him,” the script doesn’t indicate how much was done to help Morrison or what it was like for the band to make music with him.
It’s revealed that during one particularly trying recording session, Densmore walked out, quit, but later returned to the band. His relationship with Morrison seemed strongest, while Manzarek and Krieger appeared to be close.
As Densmore talked about his past with reporters, it was clear his grief over Morrison’s death is still present. “Creativity sometimes comes in the same package with self destruction,” he noted. “It doesn’t have to. Picasso lived to 90. In Jim’s case, 27 was it.
"I look to him now, as the years go by, the more I feel that..it’s just his destiny to have this quick shooting star and make a big impact. And it’s all tangled up in his self-destruction. Well, my example of here he’s really down, and then he goes and writes these words about how lonely he felt. You know that’s channelling the angst in the muse into magic. So it’s all tangled.”
During their years together (1965-71), The Doors released six studio albums, and to date, continue to sell a million releases per year.