Anticipation was high when it was announced that Oliver Stone would be filming a biopic about the popular rock band the Doors. With Platoon (1986) and Born on the Fourth of July (1989), he was gaining a reputation for being the premiere chronicler of America in the 1960s so it made sense that he would tackle that decade’s most famous (and infamous) musical acts. The question remained, what kind of approach would Stone take on the material? Many books had been written by journalists, people that knew him and even by members of the band itself, all with their own perspective and opinion on what the Doors meant to them and to popular culture. The world found out what Stone’s take was on March 1, 1991 when The Doors was released to wildly mixed reviews and strong box office. While many critics felt that Val Kilmer delivered an excellent performance as the band’s lead singer Jim Morrison, they felt that the film dwelled too much on his darker aspects and excesses and that Stone played fast and loose with the facts.
One should look at The Doors much like Stone’s subsequent film JFK (1992), as a mythical take on historical figures and events and not as documentary-like authenticity. I find The Doors to be a big, bloated, fascinating mess of a film that reflects the tumultuous times of the ‘60s. Despite the miscasting of a few roles and the rather one-sided view we get of Morrison, Stone’s film is a beautifully-shot acid trip through the ‘60s with some of the best choreographed live concert sequences every recreated on film. Best of all, it brought the Doors’ music back into the mainstream, reminded everyone what a brilliant band they were, and how much they influenced and reflected their times.
The film starts off with Morrison (Val Kilmer) recording An American Prayer and reciting lines that rather nicely apply to the beginning of this biopic. Then, Stone takes us back to New Mexico, 1949 when the singer was just a boy. As Robert Richardson’s camera floats over desolate, sun-drenched desert, the first atmospheric strains of “Riders on the Storm” plays over the soundtrack. Right from the get-go, Stone establishes the mythical approach he plans to adopt for the film by recreating a popular story told by Morrison that as a young boy his family passed by a car accident involving an elderly Native American Indian. As the story goes, at the moment when he died, his spirit left his body and went into the young Morrison. The story was meant to explain Morrison’s fascination with shamanism and mysticism.
We quickly jump to Venice Beach, 1965 where Morrison is attending film school at UCLA along with Ray Manzarek (Kyle MacLachlan). He also meets Pamela Courson (Meg Ryan), who would go on to become the great love of his life, and they quickly become romantically involved. The appearance of these two people exposes early on one of the film’s flaws – the miscasting of Kyle MacLachlan as Manzarek and Meg Ryan as Pamela. Whereas from his first appearance on-screen, you instantly accept Val Kilmer as Morrison, MacLachlan comes across as too stiff and the dialogue doesn’t sound natural coming out of his mouth. Not to mention, his wig is a distraction. With Ryan, it is her identification with romantic comedies like When Harry Met Sally... (1989) and Joe Versus the Volcano (1990) that makes it so hard to believe her as a free-spirited flower child that eventually transforms into a promiscuous drug user. In scenes where Pamela is supposed to come across as naive, Ryan conveys a clueless vacancy. It’s too bad because she would go on to demonstrate an ability to tap into a darker side with Prelude to a Kiss (1992) and more significantly with the little-seen Flesh and Bone (1993). However, with The Doors, she is clearly out of her comfort zone and it is glaringly obvious.
From there we go to that fateful day when Morrison sang some of the lyrics to “Moonlight Drive” to Manzarek and they proposed starting a band, coming up with the name, the Doors. Stone jumps to the band now with drummer John Densmore (Kevin Dillon) and guitarist Robby Krieger (Frank Whaley) rehearsing “Break on Through (To the Other Side).” This is a really strong scene as it shows the genesis for their biggest song, “Light My Fire” and Stone makes a point of showing that Morrison didn’t write all of their songs. Stone also shows how they all contributed to the song’s evolution that resulted in the classic it became. I also like how we see the Doors starting out, playing a small dive on the Sunset Strip called London Fog. Morrison is still so shy on stage that he can’t face the audience. This is the film at its best, showing the band creating music and in action, performing live.
It goes without saying that The Doors truly comes to life during the concert scenes as all the theatrical stage lighting and dynamic camera movements showcases Richardson’s skill as one of the best cinematographers ever to get behind the camera. The warm colors he uses in the London Fog scenes conveys an intimacy representative of the small venue and symbolizes a band still learning their chops, both musically and how they perform in a live setting. Richardson really gets a chance to cut loose in the sequence where the band go out into the desert and take peyote. He employs all sorts of trippy effects and also creates some stunningly beautiful shots, like that of a blue sky populated by all kinds of fragmented clouds or a pan across a rocky formation with shadows creeping upwards, animated via time lapse photography.
Stone then segues to the Doors playing at the Whisky a Go Go in 1966 – the next step to the big time. We see them perform “The End,” an epic Oedipal nightmare. It’s a hypnotic song that shows how far the band had come. Morrison is no longer shy and commands the stage like no other before him. Kilmer is mesmerizing in this scene and you can see how fully committed he is to the role. It’s not just the ability to recreate Morrison’s signature moves but he has an uncanny knack to immerse himself in the singer’s headspace. In these concert scenes it is incredible to see the actor throw himself completely into them just as Morrison would.
In the spot-on casting department, it was an absolute delight to see Michael Wincott freed from the shackles of playing clichéd heavies and make an appearance as legendary music producer Paul Rothchild who worked on many of the Doors’ albums. He has a fantastic scene later on when he tries to get through to a drunken Morrison during an awful recording session and delivers an impassioned speech even though the singer tunes him out.
Stone’s film starts to lose its mind when the Doors arrive in New York City in 1967 and the way he presents the hysteria of their arrival is like the Second Coming of the Beatles. There are moments of amusing levity as Stone shows the obvious culture clash between the square staff at The Ed Sullivan Show when the producers try to be hip by talking to the band in their own “lingo” using words like “groovy” and “dig it” that sound forced and fabricated. The Doors are told to change a lyric in “Light My Fire” so as to satisfy standards and practices. Stone has a bit of fun with their televised appearance, fudging how Morrison defied the censors.
Stone shows the skyrocketing of Morrison’s ego and how he began to believe his own hype. He also suggests that Morrison really started to lose control when he and his bandmates attended a party at Andy Warhol’s The Factory. All sorts of pretentious weirdoes vie for Morrison’s attention. Manzarek sums it up best when he tells Morrison, “These people are vampires.” However, it’s when the rest of the band departs the party leaving Morrison to fend for himself that Stone suggests the moment when the first schism between them was created. The look of distrust on the singer’s face as his bandmates depart says it all. There is no one to keep his indulgent behavior in check. We are subjected to an unfortunate fey caricature of Warhol thanks to the usually reliable Crispin Glover. Hanging out with Nico and Warhol’s regulars brings out Morrison’s worst excesses which Richardson shoots like some kind of monstrous nightmare, a bad trip that we want desperately to end. This sequence starts Stone’s escalation of depicting Morrison’s self-destructive journey.
And so we get a scene where Morrison does cocaine with a self-professed witch (played by a vampy Kathleen Quinlan) and participates in a silly, over-the-top ceremony whose inclusion stops the narrative cold. Stone is playing with the mythic figure that we know as Jim Morrison. The Doors tries to show both sides: the mythic persona and the real man drowning in fame, drugs and alcohol. Stone hints at this transformation when Morrison does the famous photo shoot that has been immortalized in posters and in the pages of glossy rock magazines like Rolling Stone. Morrison is drunk on alcohol and one might argue his own fame. He begins to believe in his own image and the photographer (Mimi Rogers) only coaxes him on when she says, “Forget the Doors. You’re the one they want. You are the Doors.” It is at this point in the film that Morrison is no longer an artist or a poet, but a commodity to be used up by everyone: the media and the masses. On Morrison’s rise to the top, everyone wants a piece of him, to capture a little bit of the exhilarating ride. Morrison’s mistake was that he obliged and thought that he could handle it.
We see how drugs and alcohol fuel Morrison’s irrational behavior and he becomes verbally and physically abusive towards Pamela. Anything that was good about Morrison depicted in the film is now gone and all we’re treated to is a series of scenes showing what an asshole he had become and how he had been consumed by his own fame. His bad behavior reaches new heights of ridiculousness during a scene where he and Pamela host a dinner party for their friends and hanger-ons. Stoned out of his mind (and probably drunk), Morrison provokes Pamela who starts throwing food around hysterically and then tries to stab him with a carving knife while he taunts her. Stone sledgehammers the point home by playing “Love Me Two Times” on the soundtrack as if to reinforce Morrison repeatedly cheating on Pamela with other women. If there is anything good that comes from this wildly over-the-top scene it is that it shows how estranged Morrison has become from the rest of his bandmates.
Fortunately, the film has amazingly choreographed concert sequences that repeatedly bring it back from the brink of its own excesses. The New Haven ’68 concert depicts Morrison’s run-in with the law when he was maced in the face backstage by a cop. It’s no longer about the music but the abuse of his power as a lead singer with a microphone to air his grievances. The best concert sequence in the film is the San Francisco ’68 one. Bathed in hellish red light, Morrison whips the crowd into a frenzy. His increasingly desperate performance is juxtaposed with his out of control personal life as he almost traps Pamela in their bedroom closet and proceeds to burn it down, gets in a car accident and is involved in a Wiccan marriage ceremony. We see Morrison in a wonderfully hallucinatory moment channel his Native American Indian spirit as he loses himself in the music. The last shot of this powerful sequence shows Morrison drunk on his own power and fame as much as he’s drunk on alcohol. The expression on Kilmer’s face says it all.
Over the years, directors like Brian De Palma, Martin Scorsese and William Friedkin flirted with directing a Doors biopic. In 1985, Columbia Pictures acquired the rights from the Doors and the Morrison estate to make a film. Producer Sasha Harari wanted Oliver Stone to write the screenplay but never heard back from the filmmaker’s agent. After two unsatisfactory scripts were produced, Imagine Films replaced Columbia. Harari tried contacting Stone again and the director met with the surviving band members. He told them that he wanted to keep a particularly wild scene from one of the early drafts. The group was offended and exercised their right of approval over the director and rejected Stone. By 1989, Mario Kassar and Andy Vajna, who owned Carolco Pictures, acquired the rights to the project and wanted Stone to direct. The Doors had seen Platoon (1986) and were impressed with what Stone had done.
Stone agreed to make The Doors after his next project, Evita (1996). After spending years on it and courting Madonna and later Meryl Streep to play the lead role, the film fell apart over salary negotiations with Streep. Stone quickly moved on to The Doors and went right into pre-production. Guitarist Robby Krieger had always opposed a Doors film until Stone signed on to direct. Stone first heard the Doors when he was a 21-year-old soldier serving in Vietnam. Historically, keyboardist Ray Manzarek had been the biggest advocate of immortalizing the band on film but opposed Stone’s involvement. According to Krieger, “When the Doors broke up Ray had his idea of how the band should be portrayed and John and I had ours.” Manzarek was not happy with the direction Stone wanted to take and refused to give his approval to the film. According to Kyle MacLachlan, “I know that he and Oliver weren’t speaking. I think it was hard for Ray, he being the keeper of the Doors myth for so long.” Manzarek claims that he was not even asked to consult on the film and if he had his way wanted it to be about four members equally rather than the focus being on Morrison. Stone claims that he repeatedly tried to get the keyboardist involved, but “all he did was rave and shout. He went on for three hours about his point of view ... I didn’t want Ray to be dominant, but Ray thought he knew better than anybody else.”
While researching the film, Stone read through transcripts of interviews with over 100 people. The cast was expected to get educated about 1960s culture and literature. Stone wrote his own script in the summer of 1989. He said, “The Doors script was always problematic. Even when we shot, but the music helped fuse it together.” He picked the songs he wanted to use and then wrote “each piece of the movie as a mood to fit that song.” Before filming, Stone and his producers had to negotiate with the three surviving band members, their label Elektra Records, and the parents of Morrison and Pamela Courson. Morrison’s parents would only allow themselves to be depicted in a dream-like flashback sequence at the beginning of the film. The Coursons wanted there to be no suggestion in any way that their daughter caused Morrison’s death. Stone found her parents to be the most difficult to deal with because they wanted Pamela to be “portrayed as an angel.” The Coursons tried to slow the production down by refusing to allow any of Morrison’s later poetry to be used in the film. After he died, Pamela got the rights to his poetry and when she died, her parents got the rights. Legendary concert promoter Bill Graham, who promoted Doors concerts in San Francisco and New York in the ‘60s, played a key role in negotiations.
When Stone began talking about the project as far back as 1986, he had Kilmer in mind to play Morrison, impressed by his work in the Ron Howard fantasy film Willow (1988). However, during this time actors ranging from John Travolta to Richard Gere to Tom Cruise and the lead singers from INXS and U2 were considered for the part. Stone auditioned nearly 200 actors to play Morrison in 1989. In his favor, Kilmer had the same kind of singing voice as Morrison and to convince Stone that he was right for the role he spent thousands of dollars of his own money to make his own eight-minute video, singing and looking like the Lizard King at various stages of his life. When the Doors heard Kilmer singing they couldn’t tell if it was him or Morrison’s voice. Once he got the part, he lost weight and spent six months rehearsing Doors songs every day. Kilmer learned 50 songs, 15 of which are actively performing in the film. He also spent hundreds of hours with record producer Paul Rothchild who told him, “anecdotes, stories, tragic moments, humorous moments, how Jim thought, what were my interpretation of Jim’s lyrics,” he said. He also took Kilmer into the studio and helped him with “some pronunciations, idiomatic things that Jim would do that made the song sound like Jim.” The actor also met with Krieger and Densmore but Manzarek refused to talk to him.
Stone auditioned approximately 60 actresses for the role of Pamela Courson. The part required nudity and the script featured some wild sex scenes which generated a fair amount of controversy. Casting director Risa Bramon Garcia felt that Patricia Arquette auditioned very well and should have gotten the part. However, Meg Ryan was cast and to prepare for the role, she talked to the Coursons and people that knew Pamela and encountered several conflicting views of her. Before doing the film, Ryan was not at all familiar with Morrison and “liked a few songs.” She had trouble relating to the culture of the ‘60s and said, “I had to reexamine all my beliefs about it in order to do this movie.”
Stone originally hired Paula Abdul to choreograph the film’s concert scenes but dropped out because she did not understand Morrison’s on-stage actions and was not familiar with the time period. She recommended Bill and Jacqui Landrum. They watched hours of concert footage before working with Kilmer. They got him to loosen up his upper body with dance exercises and jumping routines to develop his stamina for the demanding concert scenes. During them, he did the actual singing and Stone used the Doors’ master tapes without Morrison’s lead vocals to avoid lip-synching. Kilmer’s endurance was put to the test during these sequences, with each one often taking several days to film. Stone said, “his voice would start to deteriorate after two or three takes. We had to take that into consideration.” One sequence, filmed inside the Whisky a Go Go was harder than the others due to all the smoke and the sweat, a result of the body heat and intense camera lights. For five days Kilmer performed “The End” and after the 24th take, Stone got what he wanted and the actor was left totally exhausted.
With a budget of $32 million, The Doors was filmed over 13 weeks predominantly in and around Los Angeles. Krieger acted as a technical adviser on the film and this mainly involved showing his cinematic alter ego Frank Whaley where to put his fingers on the fretboard. Densmore also acted as a consultant, tutoring Kevin Dillon who played him in the film. Controversy arose during principal photography when a memo linked to Kilmer circulated to cast and crew members listing rules of how the actor was to be treated for the duration of filming. These included people being forbidden to approach him on the set without good reason, not to address him by his own name while he was in character, and no one could “stare” at him on the set. Understandably upset, Stone contacted Kilmer’s agent and the actor claimed it was all a huge misunderstanding and that the memo was for his own people and not the film crew.
Not surprisingly, The Doors received mixed to negative reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film two-and-a-half stars out of four and wrote, “The experience of watching The Doors is not always very pleasant. There are the songs, of course, and some electrifying concert moments, but mostly there is the mournful, self-pitying descent of this young man into selfish and boring stupor … The last hour of the film, in particular, is a dirge of wretched excess, of drunken would-be orgies and obnoxious behavior.” In her review for The New York Times, Caryn James wrote, “At its best, the film's haunted Doors music and visceral look creates the sense of being in some hypnotic trance. But by the end, audiences may feel they have been beaten over the head with a stick for two hours.” Time magazine’s Richard Corliss wrote, “His movies make people edgy, and that's a good thing. But this time Stone is a symptom of the disease he would chart … Maybe it was fun to bathe in decadence back then. But this is no time to wallow in that mire.” In his review for the Washington Post, Hal Hinson wrote, “Amid all this trippy incoherence, the performances are almost irrelevant. Kilmer does a noteworthy impersonation of the singer, especially onstage, where he gets Morrison's self-absorption. He gets his coiled explosiveness too, but the element of danger in Morrison is missing.”
The Chicago Reader’s Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote, “Some of the effects are arresting, and apart from some unfortunate attempts to ‘re-create’ Ed Sullivan, Andy Warhol, and Nico, the movie does a pretty good job with period ambience. But it's a long haul waiting for the hero to keel over.” Famous conservative pundit George Will not only attacked Morrison, calling him, “not particularly interesting” and that he “left some embarrassing poetry and a few mediocre rock albums,” but also the film: “for today’s audiences, Stone’s loving re-creation of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district is just a low-rent Williamsburg, an interesting artifact but no place for a pilgrimage.” However, Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “B” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “As Morrison, Val Kilmer gives a star-making performance. Lolling around in his love beads and black-leather pants, his thick dark mane falling over features that are at once baby-sweet and preternaturally dangerous, Kilmer captures, to an astonishing degree, the hooded, pantherish charisma that made Morrison the most erotically charged pop performer since the early days of Elvis.”
So how did the actual Doors feel about the film? Robby Krieger was impressed with Kilmer’s portrayal of Morrison: “It was really weird. I even called him ‘Jim’ a few times without meaning to.” In his memoirs, John Densmore wrote, “For what it is, I do think Oliver Stone’s vision of Jim Morrison has integrity; however, it is a film about the myth of Jim Morrison.” Ray Manzarek said of the film, “The movie misses out – Oliver Stone blew it ... The movie looks good, sure, but the basic heart is stone cold.”
Stone also uses several film techniques like special lighting to create a red hue over everything and a swaying, chaotic camera to create an off-kilter hallucinogenic world that he would later perfect in Natural Born Killers (1994). This effect gives the film the overall effect of a peyote experience without actually taking drugs. The Doors also captures the madness and paranoia of the era with quick edits of the horrors of Vietnam, and the Robert F. Kenney assassination juxtaposed with the belligerent cops at every concert, and the rampant drug use associated with this scene. One band member says during the film that he took drugs to expand his mind not to escape as Morrison did. As the scenes of Morrison’s excessive behavior pile up, a feeling of exhaustion sets in as it begins to be all too much which, I guess, is kind of how Morrison felt towards the end. A feeling of burn out takes over and the end of the film can’t come soon enough. The experience of watching The Doors leaves one drained and you really feel like you’ve been somewhere and experienced something.
The Doors is a potent reminder of the self-destructive power of rock stars that the media manipulates and thrives on. At one point in the film during a press conference, Morrison says, “I believe in excess,” and in doing so underlines the whole thesis of the film. The Doors is a film about excess on many levels: on a individual level with Morrison himself, on a national level with thousands of fans going crazy at the mere sight of the singer, and on a personal level with Stone’s own preoccupations permeating throughout. The Doors also examines the seductive power of the cult of personality, the god-like status to which people like Morrison or someone like Kurt Cobain are elevated to and the inevitable crash that follows when they can’t handle the responsibility. Morrison represents a generation trying to escape the pain of a crazy world. Like Cobain, Morrison wanted to ultimately be seen as an artist, but was treated in life and after his death like a commodity (Morrison was once referred to as the “ultimate Barbie doll.”). Both men were consumed by the very thing that created them: the media. They also ended their own lives, Cobain via suicide and Morrison through alcohol abuse. The Doors is a powerful study of excesses of every kind: sex, drugs, alcohol, and fame on an individual and on a society.
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