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 talking to Oliver Stone about Jim Morrison for the movie The Doors which is about The Doors and Jim Morrison but really about both by Oliver Stone for SEO value.
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.

What Would Jim Morrison Do?

As the tsunami of vitriol rolls back out into the anonymous sea of the Internet, I received a handwritten letter. It meant a lot to me, and while I’ll protect the identity of the thoughtful person who wrote it, it got me to thinking.

Perhaps I need to stop and ask myself sometimes, “What Would Jim Morrison Do?” This way I could model myself after a childhood hero when dealing with a difficult situation, if it seemed appropriate.

I do, however, make this face on regular occasion.

Since I’m an unacknowledged Jim Morrison Scholar (he was more interesting than classes most days), and an unapologetic basher of the Oliver Stone film (I love Stone’s filmmaking style though his grasp of history is stunningly inadequate and purposefully misleading), I decided to dream up a checklist so that I can see if I want to handle a situation like he would.

The Checklist:

  1. Get Drunk
  2. Shout Profanity
  3. Public Urination
  4. Flip the bird at people and snarl
  5. Get convicted of public indecency

So Can I Commit to It?

I’m really good at committing to a bit. Ask my pal Craig! But I have to admit that maybe this wasn’t the best of ideas. I can handle the first two on this list any day of the week, in any order.

Number three is where my commitment starts to falter. I’m a bit shy with public bathrooms, I’m not sure I could go with all-out public urination.

Number four is really easy in traffic. It’s less easy when I don’t curse the jackass making me late for getting home from work.

Number five might have been fun in my youth, but I got kids and a mortgage, man. I can’t really go in for all that.

Besides

In all honesty, Jim Morrison really could be an a**hole. I don’t think anyone should handle difficult situations like he did. Try saying a prayer or talking things out with a good friend. I’m not ruling out numbers one and two from the list, but use them sparingly if you can.

I can recommend instead unwinding with Feast of Friends and appreciating a mad poet burning brightly for too short a time.

(Also it is easier to misbehave and be a jerk when you have a bunch of fans blindly devoted to you and begging for the chance of your acknowledgement. Go to Twitter someday and discover how this still holds true!)

Happy Anniversary, Doors Movie!

Today marks the 23rd anniversary of Oliver Stone’s epic film about Jim Morrison.

A film that I ran out to see and in the process, let down a friend of mine by skipping a rehearsal. A film that, when I was 16, seemed like the coolest darned thing ever.

A film that, since then, I have come to realize is the shining example of everything wrong not just with our culture, but the glorification of a counter-culture that had problems deeper than imagined. There are so many factual inaccuracies in this film that I can hardly stand it anymore.

But that sixteen year old boy didn’t know that. To him, this film was everything he thought he wanted to be. Effortlessly cool, unconcerned with worldly judgment and so successful at doing…um, nothing…that he was lionized as a secular saint.

Some day soon I’ll re-watch this film (again) and pass a more sober (ha!) judgment on it. But for now, it sits there as so many of my memories of that boy do: cold and neglected, because he was a horribly selfish person. The fact that anyone considered him worth knowing is a mystery still.

And I know he lurks in my heart somewhere still, impish and awaiting the right moment to be wrong.

I live in terror that this movie, if watched again, will result in the release from his prison.

So I’ll just let you wrestle with this notion as I part today.

The same lad who idolized Luke Skywalker for all of his purity, will and self-sacrifice also idolized Jim Morrison. Noodle that one through.

Farewell, Ray Manzarek

Look, I’m not a newsdesk. As badly as I wanted to write about Ray Manzarek’s death the day it was announced, I just didn’t have the time to put something together that I would’ve felt was anything but a rush job to make an arbitrary sort of self-deadline. So I’ve spent the day thinking about it, shelved my review of Star Trek: Into Darkness for another day, and decided to say what I can say about Ray.

An important thing needs to be noted about my feelings on Ray Manzarek. I went from teenage idolator of The Doors to adult scarily-obsessed fan (like Oliver Stone), and finally, to sober adult capable of contextualizing my fandom where it belonged.

Ray, for any flaws he may have had, was the ONLY other voice I believe capable of even getting Morrison to work in a structured setting.

Sadly, when Ray wrote his book, I don’t think he was at that point. He probably changed, or at least mellowed. The documentaries that came out in later years and the books that were less worshipful and more honest certainly allowed Ray to recast himself as less of a cult leader to more of a man with a broken heart who lost his best friend far too soon.

In fact, I dare anyone to listen to Tightrope Ride and not hear the horrible pain that Morrison put Ray—and arguably everyone else in his path—through. It’s a song that Ray wrote and sang on The Doors’ first album released after Morrison’s death, and it still speaks to any of us who might know the anger caused when someone wastes the ultimate gift and shuffles off this mortal coil in totally avoidable ways. Hell, I listen to it and get mad at my past self for wasting years screwing around without purpose or focus.

Go on, listen.

Back now? Great.

At the end of it all, despite my very conflicted feelings about Ray and whether he let go of the Jim Mythos or not, there is a very important fact I cannot overlook.

He was a very, very key player in putting and keeping together the one band that ever spoke to me when my own head was completely gone and I couldn’t hear anyone else. The Doors aren’t everyone’s favorite, but they’re mine, and if it wasn’t for Ray I, and a lot of other people who needed/need someone to speak to that sadness wouldn’t have had them.

In the end, I thank him for at least trying to get the surviving band members back together, and for going on tour and giving two guys an evening to feel young again and get at least a glimpse of the impossibly lost.

Go with God, Ray. I love you for what you gave me and what you gave the world. I thank you for what you helped get me through, even though you never knew me.

Doors Week: The Greatest Doors Songs You Don’t Know

We’re going to start Doors week off with something a little light, even though I’ve demonstrated a horrible propensity for botching lists. I’ve come back to them time and again, and at best have had mixed results.

I guess it’s just not my strength.

But speaking as a Doors fan, I have to believe that maybe we’re finally in my wheelhouse. This is a list I’m destined to get right, because I’ve been writing and re-writing it all my darned life.

In theory, if I practice enough, I’m bound to get it right.

There are five songs that don’t get real play notice from non–fans, and which speak to the depth that the band really had. All five are “non-album tracks,” further narrowing the possibilities for argument along the lines of “L.A. Woman versus Break on Through (to the Other Side).”

Now, I’m not one to second–guess their legendary producer, Paul Rothchild. The guy knew what he wanted, knew how to get it (especially from a notoriously nasty drunk like Morrison) and put together what I think are six of the best studio albums ever released. But there were some songs left on in the archives that might have proven to have a little more staying power, and possibly earned the band a little more musical respect, than some of the ones that were included on final albums.

But history is history, and to be honest, The Doors never were going to be placed on the same pedestal as The Beatles. Even speaking as a fan, I don’t think that they would have deserved it. The Beatles, for all of their later idiosyncrasies, were notoriously consistent in their polish and presentation. The Doors remain, like their lead singer, a roller coaster ride capable of giving you whiplash on an unexpected turn. The aforementioned Mr. Rothchild even quit producing the band because he was just tired of dealing with Morrison and the band. (Irony: LA Woman is regarded as possibly their best album.)

I do wonder what it would have been like if they had fought harder to keep The Celebration of the Lizard on vinyl and released that as a concept album in July 1968 instead of Waiting for the Sun and stolen the mantle of psychedelic experimentalism before the White Album was released in November of that same year by The Beatles. As an added advantage: no Yoko.

Still, I’ll never love another band quite the same way. So here are five songs (linked to Spotify URIs) for you to consider.

  • Tightrope Ride

    This song is the only honest, real thing Ray Manzarek ever said about Jim Morrison after his death. And even though Morrison isn’t on it (it was released on Other Voices), the raw and unpolished hurt of being left behind by someone you wish hadn’t died is all too relatable.

  • Who Scared You?

    This one was first released as an extra track from the first posthumous Greatest Hits compilation called Weird Scenes Inside the Golmine (1972), which I bought on vinyl from an old record store called Phantasmagoria. Love it immediately.

  • Whiskey, Mystics and Men

    I fell in love with it when they first released it as part of the first boxed set in the 1990s. It’s got a real flavor to it that so belonged on an album when it was recorded.

  • The Ghost Song

    Everyone knows Morrison recorded a ton of poetry tracks in solitude before he died, and that The Doors reuinted to record backing music and called it An American Prayer. They got blasted by Rotchchild for “raping” Jim Morrison’s legacy (decades before sci-fi fanboys used the term so nonchalantly!), but this is a darn good song and it’s a pretty darn good album if you’re OK with sometimes-offensive poetry. Side note: Every time a new edition of the album comes out on a new format, there seems to be a new and/or extended version of the song. So there’s that.

  • Orange County Suite

    Morrison’s actually the one plinking around on the piano (hence the simplicity). The additional music was added decades later, but pretty awesome. Very bittersweet reflections on love.

So I’ve just expanded your horizons. Good deed for the day…done.