Doors Keyboardist Ray Manzarek on New Doc, Old Influences and Oliver Stone's Folly
Welcome back to Moment of Truth, Movieline's weekly spotlight on the best in nonfiction cinema. This week, we hear from Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek about the band's new documentary When You're Strange, which opens Friday in limited release.
For a rock band whose filmed legacy includes at least a dozen concert and video compilations -- not to mention a full-scale Hollywood biopic -- it's not just a little bizarre that The Doors were never the subject of a feature documentary until now. Enter When You're Strange, director Tom DiCillo's fairly straightforward doc (narrated by Johnny Depp) interweaving archival performance and interview footage with extended, never-before-seen footage of late vocalist Jim Morrison's own experimental film, HWY: An American Pastoral. Some of it looks like it was shot yesterday, reinforcing Morrison's enduring mythology as a half-martyr, half-ghost whose mission is carried forward here by surviving members Ray Manzarek, Robby Krieger and John Densmore. In a candid, freewheeling discussion recently with Movieline, Manzarek explained the film's mission, the Doors' cinematic influences, Oliver Stone's blundering and how making a movie is like "World War III."
How did we not have a feature-length documentary about The Doors until today?
Well, The Doors move in their own time frame -- in their own sphere. Better now than 20 years ago, because if he had it 20 years ago, there wouldn't be anything new to put out today. So here we are with a brand-new Doors documentary -- stuff you've never seen before, telling the story of The Doors to all those people in the 21st century who might not be aware of Jim Morrison, The Doors, or "Light My Fire." Though I don't know who they might be.
How and when were you approached for When You're Strange, and what was your first impression of the project?
We were first approached by Dick Wolf Productions, and we said, "Yes, man. Let's do it. Let's put a documentary together." He had done a couple of documentaries -- he won an Academy Award with the one about the firefighters in 9/11, a couple of brothers [Twin Towers] who didn't make it. So he was into documentary films and wanted to make a feature-length. He had been a Doors fan ages ago, since back when we actually booked the Doors in college. We said, "Hey, sounds like a great idea! Let's do it." He had a great director in Tom DiCillo; we talked to Tom, and his ideas were terrific, especially [his] framing it with Jim Morrison being dead and yet driving that car -- that reference to shamanism, or the shaman being able to work beyond space and time. In essence, Jim being alive kind of flip-flops the idea of death and makes it a different experience entirely. So that was about three or four years ago. And we said, "Sounds good, man."
The archival and short-film footage is quite revealing. What was new, and what role did you play in its unearthing?
We've had the footage in storage, in one of those temperature-controlled storage vaults in Hollywood like you should do with all your film and all your tapes. It was there. It had been sitting there waiting to go to work -- in cold storage. The footage said, "Any time you want to use us, we're in shape here. We just need some processing." We had everything archived and just went to work on it.
The long tail of The Doors goes on for decades, as most fans know, but When You're Strange chooses to focus on the specific years the band was active. What's left to tell of the band's legacy, perhaps?
You want me to tell you another story? "What's next, Ray?" That story will be the philosophical antecedents of The Doors.
You don't say.
Yes. What is the philosophy of The Doors? What is cosmic consciousness? What does that mean? What is opening "the doors of perception." What does that mean? How does it manifest itself in Doors music, and where does The Doors' music come from. What are Jim's poetry influences, Ray and Robby's musical influences, and John Densmore's drum influences. Who are those people, how do they influence The Doors, and what is the philosophy? That'll be the next thing. That would be sort of intellectual, though. This is a very exciting documentary for people who both know The Doors and as a great introduction to The Doors.
For people who know The Doors, though, would you address the legacy? The fractiousness in recent years, for example -- would you cooperate with telling that story?
Well, that's a possibility. I hadn't thought about it, but it sounds good to me.
There's some drama there! It's a real story. You guys are like brothers.
Yeah, I agree. I mean, we could be doing a contemporary rock-and-roll version of The Brothers Karamazov. You know? Let's do Dostoevsky, man! What the f*ck?