Revisiting Oliver Stone’s Film, The Doors

I decided to revisit, for the first time in many years, Oliver Stone’s film, The Doors. It’s included with Amazon Prime right now, so it was a great chance to jump into it.

Ostensibly about the band as a whole, it’s really a fawning biopic of James Douglas “Jim” Morrison. That’s not breaking news.

In case there’s a person reading this who hasn’t seen it, and I’m sure there’s at least one, I promise you that this is more than a simple review. The topic of The Doors is one that has a strong pull on me, and a lot of complicated feelings tied to it.

I can’t “just write” about the film as it hits emotional chords that are resonant to this day. It’s always going to be a journey.

Val Kilmer  Oliver Stone Jim Morrison The Doors
I’m always fascinated by the stories that Kilmer insisted to be called “Jim” to help him stay in character, and not once did he knock that hat off Oliver Stone. Or show up belligerently drunk. Or not show up at all for filming when he wasn’t in the mood.

I Also Promise This Review Won’t Have Any Spoilers!

I mention “spoilers” in jest. This is based on a real person’s life, so I don’t know how much I can really “spoil.” Especially in the age of the Internet, it’s not like there’s something you can’t look up.

Additionally, this is a film that came out 28 years ago as of the month I’m writing this, about a band that broke onto the national scene 24 years before that. It’s kind of mind-blowing that the myth of Jim Morrison still finds an echo 52 years after their debut album.

Anyhow, usually I post reviews to letterboxd first nowadays, and sometimes even discuss them on a podcast, before they make it to this blog. I’m inverting the process this time, because my thoughts on this specific film are lengthier than most.

Personal History as a Fan of The Doors

I have a long history as a fan of The Doors, and my relationship to the music has changed, as I have, over the years. My understanding of the band members, of which I revered at least three of as heroes, has changed over time.

As we get older, we understand that mere people are still people. They have their complexities. Some of them are unfortunate victims of their own worst tendencies.

While I can’t claim to have read every word written about the band, I can assure you that I’ve made it a mission to read as much as I can. Every few years, the honesty of the reportage increases as we move out of the afterglow of the 1960s counterculture.

Regardless, they remain my favorite band for more than just nostalgic reasons, though I’m sure more than one person who’s known me awhile would dispute that fact. I don’t care if they do. Music is music, and the music of The Doors was perfection when Morrison was involved.

Yes, I include the album The Soft Parade in that. That’s an insanely ambitious album with a great sound.

When I was a young kid, this hagiographic approach was appealing. Here was a guy who did the complete opposite of what “They” said you had to do, and enjoyed great success. For a young man looking for how to indulge his natural tendencies toward rebellion, it’s an alluring template. Not only can you get away with all this behavior, you could become an icon.

This narrative is thinly based on the life of a troubled person, who happened to be a great writer in the Beat tradition. Considering the troubled people that made up the Beats, he was a logical inheritor of that tradition. He had the good fortune of being a part of a musical movement that challenged the airy mentality of popular music. Had he never been with The Doors, he would have died in obscurity and his writings would have been curios discovered in used bookstores.

Biopic as Hagiography

J. Randal Johnson and Oliver Stone produced a script with an eye much more toward tone than realism.  JFK, Platoon, and Born on the Fourth of July all use iconic figures as a means to make a statement about the 1960s.

The Doors functions in a similar way. Jim Morrison endures as a counter culture icon of the time and molded his portrayal to say something about the era, and I guess in some way about art and artists.

The film opens with a moment supposedly from Morrisons’ past. Morrison relayed a story, poetically, that an American Indian spirit had leapt into his soul when he was a child.

I’m the only Doors fan I know that’s been willing to say that’s a completely made-up story, by the way. I don’t have a shred of evidence to support it. But with all that I’ve since read, I’m convinced it was Jim Morrison as Merry Prankster, telling a ghost story that was begging for people to call out as malarkey. It’s like a dare to the listener to accept it or reject it.

But it was the 1960s and I guess a lot of the music reporters were high and/or tripping, and too close to their interview subjects to boot. They wanted to experience the fun, and be a part of the magic.

That comes across, at least, with the portrayal of Patricia Kennealy. Here is a reporter who instead falls in love with, and has an affair with, Morrison. (For the record, she claimed his surname in later years. Whatever.)

Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison in Oliver Stone's movie about Jim Morrison and The Doors called The Doors although it's really Oliver Stone's movie about Jim Morrison and not so much The Doors even though it's a movie called The Doors starring Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison
Committed to the role, committed to what it tries to…say?

Upon Revisiting the Film

There are still pronounced issues with this work. The beginning is a bit of a jumpy mess and functions like fan fiction. These are the abbreviated and exaggerated scenes inspired by a life’s story, not the actual story.

It’s an epic music video, feeling no need to have connective tissue as it jumps from one legend-making moment to another. Scenes are built like jazz riffs off of established pieces of Morrison’s writings. He once said X, so Y will happen in the scene, and also let’s glorify going on hallucinogenic trips in the middle of the desert. It’s as if a someone had to write a script for class and they decided a fun angle would be to use their favorite band’s lyrics.

They start the love story with an absurdly Shakespearean moment where Morrison sees Pam, played by Meg Ryan, and climbs a balcony to proclaim that she’s destined to be the great love of his life.

We’ll skip past the equally dramatic moment where he creeps into her bedroom while she’s asleep and steals her away for a moonlight walk. This is a plain declaration that we’re dealing with a myth and not a biography.

It’s fine to point out that this is a film based on a life, and not the life itself. I accept it. But Johnson and Stone are so caught up extolling Morrison’s lifestyle, and the counterculture around it, that they ignore Morrison’s humanity for abbreviated and fabricated snippets.

The film cries out that these behaviors are the manifestation of a higher being who doesn’t require our boring moralities and ethics. From start to finish, its subtext is that of elevating Morrison from human to demigod. I do believe Morrison was a tortured artist, and wired differently than most. But not only does Stone never have him show remorse, he portrays his behavior as an enviable byproduct of his talent.

That’s the most frustrating thing, though. Once the film settles down, Morrison’s humanity starts to peek through in Kilmer’s performance. It becomes the driving force and the power structure of actor and director is inverted. You get a palpable sense that Stone figured out in the editing booth to let the footage of Kilmer lead him instead of vice versa.

It’s a tantalizing hint of the total film that could have been. You sense a journey where Stone transitions from seeing a legend to understanding the truth of the deeply complex character whose life he’d decided to tell.

It’s as if, suddenly, Jim Morrison was a real human being after all.

As is typical with filmmaking, a strong ending can make an audience forgive a lot of previous flaws. It may even blind some viewers to those flaws since a great ending carries more punch than initial problems, no matter how fundamental. I can fall victim to it the same as anyone else, and freely admit that at the end of this film I find myself both willing and wanting to watch it again.

Jim Morrison as a bearded twenty-something, smiling.
This guy had a lot of unresolved issues.

It’s a Technically Beautiful Film

The film is, of course, helped by the fact that it’s beautiful to behold. The cinematography by Robert Richardson is gorgeous. The film establishes a more organic flow as it progresses, making it easier to watch as it continues.

I think that the film settling down and finding a great flow may have something to do with something I noticed on watching the credits this time, “Additional Editor: Pietro Scalia.” That’s like when I watched Rogue One and saw Stuart Baird as Editorial Consultant. Ah, I said. That’s who they brought in as a fixer.

All joking aside, though, it really is a visually sumptuous film. Films are a series of moving pictures and these pictures are the kind you can stare at and admire without end.

It feels wrong not to mention that the performances in addition to Kilmer’s are unfairly overlooked. On the whole, they’re quite good and interesting. They’re caricatures as much as Kilmer’s Morrison may be at points, but they’re good. Kathleen Quinlan gives something of a standout performance, the type that enhances the reality of Kilmer’s. Meg Ryan gives a sorrowful frailty to Pam, and a necessary kindness that makes you accept that she’s staying with what amounts to a fame-addled monster.

The notable exception is Billy Idol. I have to be completely honest that for a film that works so very hard to establish its sense of reality, he yanks you right back out. It’s not his fault. It’s that he’s not right for this moment. It doesn’t help that his crutches from a real-life motorcycle accident wind up acting as a continuity error for the film’s established timeline. Look for it.

Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison in Oliver Stone Movie The Doors and The Doors is an Oliver Stone Movie starring Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison.
It’s kind of crazy how beautiful the pictures are.

A History of Opinion

I came to sort of hate this film over time. I came to hold it up as a paragon of everything wrong with hero worship. I don’t think that’s an invalid criticism.

After this viewing, though, I’ve come to regard that as an issue separate from the film itself. I came to watch this film, not to praise what it did to the psyche of a teenagers addled by their own fandom.

As I continued to read about Morrison beyond the fawning tributes and truly started to understand – as best I could – who he was as a person, my feelings about him changed. It went from hero worship, to disgust, to…sadness.

In a sense, it’s pity for a guy who was so broken inside. Someone so unable to control his urges, and so enabled by people around him, that he was destined to die early. There’s a more recent celebrity I think of when it comes to this, who died not so many years ago, but I’ll let you ponder which.

While I subscribe to the theory of his death by pulmonary embolism, which I first read in a terrific book called The Lizard King Was Here: The Life and Times of Jim Morrison in Alexandria, Virginia, Morrison was doomed to self-destruct one way or another. 

The myth that he faked his death and ran away to Africa to live a quiet life is nonsense. Even if I am wrong about that, he would’ve died “in exile,” too.

The Enduring Template

In the end, this is an important film, regardless of whether or not you like it. This is a good film, despite its inherent issues. It is a work of art.

When I finally saw Bohemian Rhapsody it was hard on the heels of seeing The Doors again. I was struck by the fact that it followed the exact template that Stone set up in 1991. You have to admire the fact that Oliver Stone, in roughly two and a half hours, established a solid framework that would act as a roadmap for adulation and give an actor the opportunity to give a noteworthy performance.

At the very least, we’ll always have the scene of Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison getting up from his final poetry reading to mutter, “Let’s get some tacos,” and breaking the fourth wall as if to thank everyone for watching.