Directed by: Oliver Stone.
Written by: J. Randal Johnson and Oliver Stone.
Starring: Val Kilmer (Jim Morrison), Meg Ryan (Pamela Courson), Kyle MacLachlan (Ray Manzarek), Frank Whaley (Robby Krieger), Kevin Dillon (John Densmore), Kathleen Quinlan (Patricia Kennealy), Michael Wincott (Paul Rothchild), Michael Madsen (Tom Baker), Josh Evans (Bill Siddons), Dennis Burkley (Dog), Billy Idol (Cat).
If you’re going to make a film about Jim Morrison, than Oliver Stone’s The Doors is probably as good as it’s going to get. Val Kilmer is remarkable in the lead role, channeling Morrison in a way that makes it impossible to imagine anyone else in the role. The concert scenes are energetic, and brilliantly staged by Stone, and capture what it was about The Doors music that made it so special. The film captures, better than perhaps any other film, what it’s like to live in a constant drug induced haze – and former the sober viewer, precisely what it’s like to be the only sober person in the room (any one who has ever been a designated driver knows that feeling). It is this part that makes The Doors, while an accurate presentation of the personalities and era it portrays, also a rather trying experience to actually sit through (and certainly more so for me now, than me as a teenager, who was more prone to thinking some of the stuff in the movie as being deep, rather than the undeniably pretentious ramblings of a man, who while maybe a genius, was also stoned all the time, and thought himself a genius). At two hours and twenty minutes, The Doors pushes the limits of just how much an audience member can take, especially as the movie goes along and becomes repetitive – with scene after scene of Morrison high and rambling, crashing and burning, and alienating everyone around him. This may well be what it was like to be around Morrison – to the movie’s credits, almost every other character in the movie gets sick of Morrison at one point or another. The problem is, so does the audience.
The movie opens, as all musical biopics are by law required to, with a scene of a young Jim Morrison having a childhood experience that will haunt the rest of his life. In this case, it’s a family car trip in the late 1940s, where the family has to slow down as it drives through an accident scene, complete with bloody victims – including what looks like some elderly Indian chiefs. Stone will flash back to these faces throughout the movie – and in one hallucinogenic concert scene, show Morrison’s on stage moves superimposed over and alongside Indian dances. If Stone ever mentions Morrison’s supposed Cherokee partial lineage specifically, I missed it, but the connection is made throughout.
The movie than flashes to Morrison as a UCLA film student in 1965 – showing his latest, black and white opus (which looks, of course, exactly like the type of film you would expect a drugged out, pretentious college kid to make) before he quits, and forms a band with a fellow student Ray Manzarek (Kyle MacLachlan), alongside two others – John Densmore (Kevin Dillon) and Robby Krieger (Frank Whaley) – where they came from, it never really says. It’s 1965, and The Doors will take off very quickly, and then crash and burn almost as quickly – being passe by the time Morrison would die in 1971. But what a six years it was.
It’s easy to forget just how good an actor Val Kilmer can be in the right role – and if it weren’t for his brilliant turn in Tombstone (1993) – the best screen version of Doc Holliday ever – his performance in The Doors would be his best ever. This isn’t an easy role, as Kilmer has to play various degrees of stoned or drunk (or probably both) in virtually every scene, and wrap his mouth around some strange dialogue – ranting, crazy stuff that is a mixture of the pretentious, ridiculous and genuinely insightful (watching the film made me realize that Kilmer HAS to be in season 3 of True Detective – what Season 2 is missing in an actor, like McConaughey, who can handle the crazy shit Nic Pizzolatto writes, and not have it come across as completely stupid – Kilmer could do it). I don’t use the use the pretentious lightly – in fact, I generally hate the world, and feel it is used far too often in describing movies and other art – but I think in the case of The Doors (the band) and Morrison it fits. Morrison’s poetic lyrics can be genuinely beautiful and insightful – but there’s a whole lot of strange, ridiculous crap in there as well, straining for importance. You have to be in the right frame of mind (preferably altered in some way), to really get into The Doors – and while I haven’t listened to them really in years, I still do like the music. The movie shows us why, in long concert scenes – that often include long rants and tirades by Morrison, as he threatens to once again go too far, as the rest of the band keeps the beat, and looks at each other nervously. The concert scenes are the best in the movie – and are really among the best of their kind in musical biopics. They perfectly encapsulate Morrison’s stage presence, and The Doors music itself, in all its strange glory.
Offstage however, is where The Doors stumbles along the way. The most important relationship in the movie is between Morrison and Pamela Courson (Meg Ryan) – a woman he meets before he was famous, and sticks with him until the end, before succumbing to drugs herself in the years after Morrison’s death. The casting of Ryan, then America’s sweetheart, as the drugged out hippie chick girlfriend of Jim Morrison could be described as stunt casting on the part of Stone – although I think Ryan could have been fine had the movie given her something meaningful to do – but it really doesn’t. Ryan exists, as all spouses in musical biopics do, so that she can get angry and hurt when Morrison cheats on her, try and talk him into slowing down on the drugs, and finally accepting that the price of being around such a genius is to put up with his crap. It’s a nothing role, really, and so is every other role in the movie that isn’t Kilmer’s. Most of them simply drift in and out of the background in Morrison’s life – who is too stoned to notice when they’re not around, because, hell, there’s always more people around to get stoned with.
I have to give Stone and Kilmer credit for The Doors – this is probably the best version of the Jim Morrison story you could possibly tell, and the most accurate. Morrison spent his short life mostly stoned out of his mind, and that wreaked havoc on his body and his mind. He grows fatter as the movie goes along, and impotent, and once he reaches the top, there is nowhere left for him to go but down – which he goes, very slowly, in the film. Morrison undeniably made some great music in his life – as pretentious as some of it may be, there is hardly a song in the movie I don’t know, and at least partially love. He was also emblematic of the time and place he came from. But he just isn’t that interesting a person to be around – especially not for well over two hours. That Kilmer delivers such a great performance is a testament to his skill. That Stone makes the film as good as it is, is a testament to his. The film is, for Stone, an interesting transitional film – you can see signs of the visual experiments he would perfect in JFK, Natural Born Killers and Nixon – with more hallucinogenic imagery, the mixing of styles, and, and free association editing that made those films masterpieces, are here in The Doors as well. But it’s also a trying experience, because while Morrison may have been a genius, he was also an asshole – and not even that interesting of an asshole. There’s only so many times you can watch him get stoned and make an ass of himself, before you just wish for misery to end.