Movies We Like
It’s called The Doors but director Oliver Stone’s hyper-bonkers bio of the band should have just been called Jim Morrison. Because the real show here is Val Kilmer’s brilliant performance as the self-destructive lead singer, while the rest of the guys--Ray Manzarek (Kyle MacLachlan), Robby Krieger (Frank Whaley) and John Densmore (Kevin Dillon)--spend most of the movie standing around scolding Jim and telling him to grow up. As usual, Stone hits his points with a sledge hammer, and Doorsaphiles may take issue with the actual facts. I mean, was Jim’s LSD-inspired obsession with an Indian shaman a Morrison or a Stone concoction? But that’s neither here nor there; like Stone’s greatest film, JFK (also released in ’91), in the end the actual facts don’t matter. What does matter is the incredible filmmaking skills on show here. From the camera work to the editing to the use of sound, Stone is in his element with his usual all-star crew at their most dizzying and superfluous. If Morrison was one of music’s most self-indulgent windbags--some love The Doors while others call them overrated--Stone is in a similar boat. The guy has won a couple Oscars and penned a couple kinda-classics (Midnight Express, Scarface) but often gets eye rolls when his name is mentioned. And that proves to be part of the beauty here; the excess of Morrison’s short life is perfect for Stone’s excess on film.
Though living members of The Doors at different points of production were consulted, in the end they all publicly disavowed the final movie, claiming Stone ignored their suggestions. So in Stone’s world, the story of The Doors goes something like this. Transplanted from a nice all-American, middle class childhood, Jim was a groovy, shirtless UCLA film student, influenced by Literature 101 (The Beats, Nietzsche, Rimbaud, etc.), making ridiculous overly arty student films. After discussing his coolness with a classmate, Manzarek, they decide to form a band. They add the less hip, but apparently talented Krieger and Densmore to the band and pretty quickly start to gain a rep on the Sunset Strip club scene for their rulebreaking improvised style. Jim, in full swagger, also stalks and then seduces a young flower child, Pamela Courson (Meg Ryan), and she becomes his old lady. The band navigates the swirling waters of the swinging sixties rock scene, having hit records, meeting Andy Warhol (Crispin Glover), dealing with police arrests and a general far-outness. Meanwhile the more successful they get, the more Jim alienates Pam and his band with his excessive egomania and drug and alcohol abuse, until he finally overdoses in Paris at the age of twenty seven, just after the publication of his poetry book.
Like so many biographies of modern musicians, it’s impossible to summarize the life and the art in one movie. Luckily, Stone wisely sticks mostly to Morrison’s years in the band (as opposed to so many bios that use traumatic childhoods to justify shitty behavior later). Stone does hint at some possible childhood scars, but he mostly seems to be enjoying Morrison’s druggie antics and that’s what makes the film extra fun: excess behind and in front of the camera. Stone does about as credible of a job as ever has been done to create the druggy haze for audience members; there does not really appear to be much judgement going on. Stone often lets Jim get a good personal thrashing from his loved ones, but he mostly wants to get back to the acid trips. Only when Jim has a sexual fling with a witchy rock journalist, Patricia Kennedy (Kathleen Quinlan) is his phony persona called out. She debunks the childhood bio Jim has been living on; his nice parents are indeed alive and worried about him. Facing who he really is is the one thing that seems to quell Jim’s sexual powers and she forgives him because he’s so damn hot. As do most of the people who care about him, over and over.
The cast is full of familiar faces donning wigs to recreate their famous and semi-famous characters. Dillon, Whaley and especially MacLachlan are believable in their roles as Jim’s befuddled bandmates. Glover is memorable in his one scene as Warhol (and much more believable than David Bowie wearing the white wig in Basquiat and certainly better than Guy Pierce was in Factory Girl). Michael Madsen also pops in as Warhol “superstar” Tom Baker (just before Reservoir Dogs and Thelma and Louise broke him big). Billy Idol, Paul Williams and Mimi Rogers also all make appearances, as does the always watchable Michael Winscott. The cast weak-spot is Meg Ryan, trying to break free from her American kewpie doll image. The Doors seems to be an attempt at edginess, and she just isn’t believable in the period or as the sexual muse/victim. No matter how drug-fueled her character is supposed to be, she always just seems like a bubbly actress taking on a risky acting class assignment.
Kilmer is truly great as Morrison. He joins the long list of actors who, to the casual fan, now embody the musician more then the musician does, which would include other great performances like Sissy Spacek as Loretta Lynn (Coal Miner’s Daughter), Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash (Walk The Line), Diana Ross as Billie Holiday (Lady Sings The Blues), Garry Busey in The Buddy Holly Story, Forest Whitaker as Charlie Parker (Bird), Gary Oldman as Sid Vicious (Sid & Nancy), Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles (Ray) and most recently Sam Riley as Ian Curtis of Joy Division (Control). As time goes on, I’m not sure who the real Jim Morrison is in my memory: the guy from the album covers and concert footage I’ve seen or the character Kilmer created. Kilmer sings his own tunes as well--for my ears sounding exactly like Morrison. Perhaps we never fully understand why a guy blessed with so much seemed to harbor such a strong death wish. Is it the film or Morrison himself who kept his feelings at an arms length? With The Doors, Stone may not ever give audiences the “why,” but he does show us the “what” and the “what” filtered though Stone’s crazy eyes is a hedonistic, bombastic, cartoony blast.