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.

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.

Doors Week: That Damned Movie

The Doors Movie Poster
Kilmer gives a robust, entertaining performance. But it is a performance as impersonation, not as reality.

Oliver Stone is a liar, a propagandist and an artist.

Wall Street is a great movie as I remember it (though I haven’t watched it in years), Platoon has some wonderful performances and moving scenes (and exposed me to one of my favorite pieces of music, Adagio for Strings) and other than that, he’s a tool–bag.

One movie in particular he’s gotten a continual pass for is his “biopic” about The Doors. Setting aside the fact that the movie is really and truly a myth–infused biopic about Jim Morrison (note: not the band), it’s frustrating to look back at how far that stupid movie went to keeping me trapped in a well of worshipping a false idol instead of appreciating a troubled artist for who he truly was.

But let’s be honest, The Doors is crafted to perpetuate a cultural mythos to elevate the importance of a bunch of burned–out society kids who lost site of the fact that life is a series of compromises and not everyone gets to make a living being an artist who majored in French art history. It’s a lesson forgotten by the Occupy movement decades later.

The main reason I bring it up (aside from my occasional, obligatory “hippie” rant) is that The Doors is more a love letter to a time period than anything else. Morrison’s life is merely a prop for Stone to wax poetic about how much cooler life was when “everyone” was tripping balls.

I Loved It at the Time

When I was sixteen years old, I was dumb like most sixteen year olds. I like to think that I was a different kind of dumb though; I stayed out of a great deal of trouble by choice and not just chance. Also, I lived in the middle of nowhere and had no car or license, so that helped too.

Anyway, a long time ago my brother took me to see Awakenings with Robert DeNiro and Robin Williams. He’d already seen it, but insisted it would be a good movie to see. He was correct about that in general, but in specific he had conned me into seeing it because he had seen the preview for The Doors in front of it. Being the awesome brother he is, he went to see the movie again just so he could be the first to let me know about the movie and see my reaction to the preview. Much as he and I used to fight back then, he’s always been pretty awesome to his kid brother.

Needless to say, I was out of my mind with anticipation. I shortly began counting the days down to the release date of March 1 1991. I was focused on the film. This was to be the Greatest Film of All Time. People hyped Kilmer’s performance ahead of the release. I read article after article about it; in the days before the Internet, it was vastly more difficult to read about a movie and 7-11 magazine racks were a necessary library for me.

I saw the movie on opening day after school. I skipped a last chance at practice for a piece I was performing with a friend at the Metro Championships for Speech & Debate. To this day, his mother remembers me as the guy who screwed up his chances at Nationals that year when we didn’t qualify to go. I felt really bad about it for a long time.

And let’s be clear, I thought it was one of the greatest movies ever made.

I walked out of that theatre convinced that Morrison was some sort of demi–god, my parents were fools for not being a part of the 1960s counter–culture and Oliver Stone and Val Kilmer deserved every Oscar ever made. And can you blame me? The movie is a frenetic orgy of glorified drug use, alcohol abuse, hedonism and pseudo–intellectual bullsh** philosophy served with a side of hero worship.

When you’re sixteen, that is the definition of awesome.

As I Grew Older

I came to regard the film in later years as a well–crafted propaganda. I had read considerably more about Jim Morrison’s life, from sources more dedicated to examining the truth of it rather than the myth. The two best I can recommend are Break on Through: The Life and Death of Jim Morrison and an obscure little book called The Lizard King Was Here: The Life and Times of Jim Morrison in Alexandria, Virginia.

So when I went back and saw the movie again on video, the bologna stank a little more, but I felt it was a heck of a sandwich regardless. Who cared if Stone cropped this story and that, and maybe presented Morrison in a more political light than Morrison himself would have tolerated?

See, the dirty little secret is that Jim Morrison was not looking to be a political influence. Oliver Stone wants to be one though, and I guess Morrison was a convenient canvas on which to paint an agenda. Dead guys can’t correct history.

He was a pretty intelligent guy, had a talent for writing Beat poetry and more than half the time was saying crazy stuff just to mess with people. The myth grew largely out of the fact that he had a very dry sense of humor and didn’t feel a need to retract statements. People wanted to run with things, he let them have their fun.

The Turning Point

The point when I started to dislike the movie intensely was somewhat recently, when I read the aforementioned The Lizard King Was Here: The Life and Times of Jim Morrison in Alexandria, Virginia. Morrison’s humanity suddenly came into clarity for me, as I was able to get in the under-reported part of his youth and sort of realize the reason he always spoke so strongly to disaffected, questioning kids is because he was one.

There was no Indian Soul that jumped into his body and turned him into a Shaman. He was a troubled man who told tall tales about his childhood because he hated his childhood. He hated being rootless, having to look for father figures in strangers while his father spent his time focused on his military career. He was the oldest son of a difficult man, seeking identity wherever he could find it.

And so now I look at the movie as a bunch of pretentious vignettes based on a phony mythology that does nothing to elevate the man on which it’s focused. If anything, it diminishes him and shows him as this strange caricature instead of a complex human being.

The Final Nail in the Coffin: Even Manzarek Thought the Movie was Off-Base

And so the movie falls apart when held against the fundamental fact that reality is often more complex and interesting than the stories we like to spin around it. Unfortunately, Stone set the template for these sorts of biopics that we accept. And I suppose I get frustrated because I see it as nothing more, now, than base manipulation.

Sadly, it also makes me look at Kilmer’s performance as nothing more than an impersonation of a myth. It’s still entertaining, but it’s not a real person, and therefore not a real character.

It would be easy to shrug it off, but Stone did it again that same year with JFK, a similarly well–constructed series of falsehoods shrouded in believable half–truths in order to further a myth.

Someone else once said that movies would become the new history texts. So yes, The Doors bothers me for the fact that it fooled me when I was a kid and is a shining example of how filmmakers are fooling kids (and adults) again and again through time. If anything, The Doors is the first real example of the type of “documentary” we’ve come to accept over time.

Doors Week: The Best Purchase

After last night’s musings on the first Doors album that ever I bought (which incidentally is now in Hawk’s possession), I’m going to relate a quick story about the best Doors purchase ever I made.

See, Mike and I bonded initially over a very simple question about shared Doors fandom, and the sharing of No One Here Gets Out Alive, the de rigueur autobiography for any Morrison initiate. The one that, in retrospect, is the most historically inaccurate.

Like Oliver Stone’s 1991 movie, it’s chock full of myth-making, the type that young fans subscribe to in the effort to understand the enigma of young, famous death. But when you’re a kid and you’re looking for idols, it’s a fun one to read.

The truth of that biography is as muddled and inaccurate as Stone’s movie as well (he cribbed a great deal of it, unattributed, from that book and instead claimed only that Densmore’s autobiography Riders on the Storm was the source, but there are substantial pieces of The Myth that are not in Densmore’s book), but that’s not the story I tell today.

No, today, in honor of the fact that I’m hanging out with Hawk as I write this, I’m writing about one of the funnier moments in our friendship.

During high school, at some point in Sophomore year I think*, Phantasmagoria (an old record store I’ve mentioned before that, according to the Web, is now home to the Montgomery County Gilchrist Center for Cultural Diversity) had gotten a copy of Morrison Hotel, one of the six best full–length studio albums that the Doors ever released.

*I am pretty convinced it was early Sophomore year, in the fall, and it was either mostly cloudy or partly sunny; Mike thinks that’s accurate after I asked him if that’s what he remembers.

Being in high school and being competitive, the race was on to see which of us could get to Phantasmagoria first to win what The Kurgan might call…The Prize.

I remember racing out of school and virtually busting a lung to get there first. I was nervous energy and hopeful. Remember kids, this is in the days when getting an album was an accomplishment. There was no file sharing and no instant burning to CD. You either owned the album or waited the long time for the person to set aside time to listen to it and dub it from a synchronous tape deck.

In short, owning the album was everything.

And I got there, and it was there, and I bought it. As I walked out, as if scripted from a movie, Mike was across the street and I held the album aloft to say to him, Behold I have Won!

In retrospect, I was an ass, because Mike had his heart set on it and here I was, supposedly his best friend, dashing to the store to beat him to the purchase. I’m not even sure I was motivated so much by the music as I was by the chance at victory. I’d like to think that over time, I learned not to be so hung up on winning and losing and materialism.

However, in true BFF fashion, we sat down and ate at Roy Roger’s afterward and shared notes about the album.

But for that day and for that glorious moment, Morrison Hotel was mine all mine and I enjoyed the Hell out of it. It’s chock full of wonderful tracks and was the moment where the band very obviously finally found its real niche of Blues sound. LA Woman was very much the natural next step, and you can hear it start to be born in Morrison Hotel.

But every time I put it on and hear the first strains of Roadhouse Blues and I think of a nice day so long ago when I got the prize first.

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s story…when I take Oliver Stone to task for his film. Someone finally has to do it, and the hammer must finally fall.

Doors Week: Introduction

At the gentle prodding of my conscience, my good standing as a fan(atic), my honored title as pre-eminent James Douglas Morrison Scholar and The Clone’s ability to get under my skin with the occasional tweet pretending Oliver Stone’s movie biopic is anything but insane propagandistic 1960s hippie nonsense, I’ve decided to dedicate this week to blogs about The Doors.

Please be clear about something: when I love something or someone, I love them without reservation. I don’t see a need to dwell on the negative or to critique something harshly; either I love them or I don’t. Simple as that.

Why on earth would I want things to be more complicated?

Perspective

Does it mean I rob myself of the ability to be critical at all? No.

It’s a fair statement to say that The Soft Parade is the hardest album for a non-fan to hear for obvious reasons, but it’s still The Doors, there are more songs on it that I love than I don’t, and even the songs that aren’t all that great or might be incongruous with the album’s flow still have a place because they have a sound that I like.

This is no different than saying that my friend can be an assh***, but I see other qualities that compel me to love him.

That analogy is specifically apt if you’re going to be a Doors fan beyond your teenage years. Let’s be clear about this: despite the giant mountain of mythos, Jim Morrison was a human being. I’ve written about him and his flaws before; I feel like I understand Morrison as well as anyone could who didn’t know him personally. I’ve read nearly as much about him as I’ve read about Star Wars.

You wouldn’t think there would be that much about him, but there is. I suppose it’s waning as the hippie generation dies out and those of us who carried the torch for his mythology have grown up a little wiser and perhaps a little more aware of the dangers of hero worship.

Truthfully, my experiences of being a devoted fan of Morrison are probably why I get the d–chills so bad when people go all gaga for Obama. Setting aside the everyone’s politics, the cult of personality that gets built up around anyone is just a bad idea.

Ironically, I started truly liking Morrison’s work as an artist again once I stopped “worshipping” him. Or maybe that’s not ironic at all. You get the point.

What’s Left to Say?

After writing a few pieces over the years (and discussing the band to the point of nausea with anyone who would listen), including my final take on Morrison and my last shot at Manzarek, you might wonder if I have anything left in the tank.

I definitely have enough left over for a final set of blogs on the topic, I assure you, including my adult (re-)assessment of Stone’s horribly inaccurate biopic that was ostensibly about the band but was really just a tweeny love letter to what he thought Morrison represented (and by the way, got wrong).

So settle in for the first-ever Doors Week at kessel korner.