Friday, September 3, 2010

Oliver Stone: The Doors

I remember seeing tons of shows as a teenager where I would gladly be packed shoulder to shoulder with other sweaty music fans – packed like sardines – waiting for a band or musician to come on stage and give us a show. I was always adamant about seeing bands that did something different live than what they would do on their albums; after all, if I wanted to hear the same thing I would save my money and just listen to the album. Standing there for hours with complete strangers, swaying back and forth and sometime getting rowdy in mosh pits or circle pits, and emulating the antics of the band's frontman was all part of the experience. I'm fond of those memories; memories that are likely never to fade, and memories that always arise when I spin a particular album. One thing is always clear when I remember those times when I had the stamina to hop from venue to venue in Portland, OR to see a variety of bands: I was feeding off the energy of the band, and most specifically the frontman (aka the lead singer). This person was the avatar for a scene, a niche or subculture that we all sought to assimilate with our band t-shirts and hightop Converse (or Vans). These frontmen could single-handily make a band watchable; they were all energetic, they could all belt a good tune, and they all had an undeniable hypnotic quality about them. The band needed to be good, too, and I'm not shallow enough to say that I didn't enjoy watching people jam, but it was always the frontman that kept me going back whenever that band would come through town. Fans became acolytes to these kinds of icons, and it dawned on me while I was watching Oliver Stone's flawed biopic:  there may have been no greater – or more influential – frontman than Jim Morrison.

Oliver Stone's lazy biopic gets one thing right: it understands the aura and energy of Jim Morrison. The Doors is at its best when it acts more as a concert film than a biopic as Stone and his DP Robert Richardson film the concert scenes with the appropriate energy and wide shots so the viewer can get a sense of the mania involved in going to see a figure like Morrison play with his band. A lot of the concert scenes in the film reminded me of the fun of going to see some of my favorite bands as a teenager, and how everyone in attendance fed off each other's energy. The best example of this is the infamous final concert of the Morrison-led Doors where he supposedly exposed himself on stage (though numerous accounts claim it was just his finger). What people not realize about this concert – and Stone is helpful in pointing this out – is that it was a big deal for a band of the caliber of The Doors to play a show with no seating on the floor. This very well could have been the first show with a mosh pit as Morrison (Val Kilmer) – bearded and haggard – marches through the crowd in an insane conga line singing "Break on Through". It's one of the film's best scenes (thanks also to Kilmer's performance, but more on that later) and is a reminder of just how banal, claustrophobic, and awful the rest of the film is.

Despite what I've said about Morrison's influence and aura (and he was insanely influential for the kind of frontmen to the bands I listened to growing up…hardcore/metal/punk bands, to be specific) I really dislike The Doors. I think they're perhaps one of the most overrated bands in the history of rock and roll; however, you can't discount their influence on the genre, and specifically Morrison's influence. Perhaps that is why I found the film so incredibly tedious and boring when the actors (the aforementioned Kilmer playing Morrison; Kyle MacLachlan as Ray Manzarek; Frank Whaley as Robby Krieger, the man responsible for keeping The Doors myth alive; and Kevin Dillon as John Densmore, rounding out the band) aren't playing music. I think part of that is because Morrison was an aggravating and annoying person; a manchild who would grate on anyone's nerves. He constantly no-shows to recording sessions and live shows; and he famously began to get into witchcraft while he began to get more heavily involved in drugs and alcohol causing him to become even more unbearable as a person. So, why would I want to watch a film about this kind of person if I don't like the band at all? It's a question I kept coming back to as I watched The Doors, and every time I considered The Doors an utter failure, Kilmer would change my mind into thinking that the film was simply just a failure.

Kilmer's performance is one of the best of his career, and not simply because he looks like Morrison. This isn't merely an impersonation or mere aping; this performance is more like he's being possessed by the ghost of Morrison, and it's truly eerie to watch Kilmer sing these songs (he practiced for months getting every little nuance down, and making sure every inflection in his voice was like Morrison's) and take the form of Morrison in a way that it does truly feel like we're watching documentary footage at times. However, Kilmer's performance (the only memorable performance as the rest of the actors are wasted, especially Meg Ryan as Pamela Courson) isn't enough to save the odd pacing of the film which jumps around from bullet point to bullet point as if Stone knew that he wanted to hit all of the major points in The Doors mythology, but didn't want to fill in the blanks. Which boggles my mind because one watches a biopic to not just see a dramatization of famous events, but to see the little things that fill in the blanks of the subject being explicated. And unfortunately

The deification of Morrison begins early in the film as he drops out of films school, finds some musicians to jam with, creates a hit in "Light My Fire", and becomes the reluctant icon of the counterculture. It seems to happen that quickly as Stone rushes through these early parts of Morrison's career. His band, perhaps the one group of people that brought out the best in Morrison, begins to become marginalized. Morrison was one of the first frontman to a band that drew so much attention that people started to pay more attention to the frontman than to the band as a whole. This deification of course led to his infamous "Lizard King" phase, and his drug abuse and alcoholism as well as his dabbling in witchcraft which caused him to miss countless recording sessions and live performances; all of which are covered here by Stone who employs for the first time the aesthetic that he would be known for in the 90's. Stone uses hallucinogenic camera trickery for Morrison's famous trek into the desert with full-on Koyaanisqatsi like imagery. However, after about an hour Stone settles into a more classical aesthetic that we attribute to biopics, and it's an choice, too, because it becomes evident that the film was at least exiting and watchable with the unpredictability of the desert scenes, as opposed to the monotonous and repetitive scenes of Morrison stumbling around drunk and pissing people off with his immature antics. What we definitely don't get with The Doors is any kind of context to the enigmatic Morrison (I understand that Stone wanted to stay faithful to the Morrison mythology) or why he chose to leave film school and become a musician; or, for instance, how he ended up in France after being convicted in an American courtroom for indecent exposure. The film just skips around from major event to major event and it really just boils down to the fact that this film is not just a film for The Doors fans, but it's a film for fans of The Doors who want to see things through the eyes of Oliver Stone's fandom. It just makes for a paint-by-numbers biopic that is one of the only real failures of Stone's great run of films from 1986 – 1995.

Still, the live-show presence of Morrison as portrayed by Kilmer is something to behold (perhaps you can YouTube it?), and I don't want to end this review without giving credit where it is due: The Doors, and again Morrison specifically, were one of the first American bands to be something different live (their performance on The Ed Sullivan Show is famous for not bending to Standards and Practices demands to change a lyric, as well as being something radically different than what bands were doing with live performances at the time). In an era when you knew what you were getting when you saw a band or an artist live, The Doors were a shock – even to the counterculture that lapped up all of Morrison's "poetry". Morrison's improvisational skills and onstage antics would act as a template for countless bands that would follow. Prior to The Doors people would get stoned and space out to the sounds of their favorite band/artist, swaying back and forth, knowing exactly what that band/artist was going to do: the beats, the timing, when the lyrics were coming, etc. You basically paid to see what you could hear on a record. The Doors, however, were a completely different entity, and despite my initial comments about the band being the most overrated band of all time, it is amazing to think about the impact they had on the possibilities of what a live show could be. Think about the backlash Bob Dylan faced when he decided to change things up from his typical folk sound to the angrier and electrically charged sounds of Highway 61 Revisited. The same jolt is provided to the counterculture when Morrison breaks from the almost comatose, shaman-like chanting of his lyrics to a song, to uttering "fuck" over and over while twirling around on stage. This is why The Doors struck such a nerve because even the counterculture they were catering to weren't expecting the kind of shock to the system that Morrison provided.

There's a great scene where they clash with the stiffness of Ed Sullivan and his employees, and you can see how Morrison differed from the band when the producer of the show asked them to change a lyric from "Light My Fire" where the band sees it as simply changing "just one lyric", but Morrison sees it as changing the very thing they are. And Morrison punctuates the moment by not just saying the line, but shoving it right into Standards and Practices face by over enunciating the line into the camera (followed by a shot of him thrusting his hips). Later, after much turmoil in the band, Morrison hears "Light My Fire" on a TV commercial. Outraged at the fact that his bandmates would do this without consulting him he throws the TV across the room. Manzarek and Krieger see it as part of the bigger picture for the band, but Morrison sees it as nothing more than a whoring-out of their ethics. These were the scenes that interested me; however, we unfortunately get too many scenes of the same old, same old with Morrison getting high or drunk, and stumbling around like an idiot. It's amazing that anyone would want to be around this person, and I certainly didn't want to watch him – despite how good Kilmer's performance is – for two-plus hours.

It's a shame this film couldn't have been more. Perhaps I'm being a bit prickly because of my dislike for the music of The Doors. However, I couldn't help but think of better biopics about musicians who died too early; films like The Buddy Holly Story, or one of my favorite films a few years ago, Control, about the premature death of Ian Curtis (he was 23), a frontman to the band Joy Division who influenced the very bands I was speaking about in the opening of this review. But despite my reservations about the music of The Doors, Morrison is a great subject for a film, especially when you have an uncanny performance on your hands such as the one delivered here by Val Kilmer.

One does wonder, though, how different Stone's initial screenplay was. He bowed to the pressure put on him by the Morrison estate to make sure that Morrison and his longtime companion Pamela Courson came off smelling like roses; which apparently, depending on which Doors mythology you subscribe to, was definitely not the case and many believe that Morrison's cause of death ("heart failure") was perhaps caused by Courson, who died herself of similar "heart failure" three years later. One also wonders what this film would have looked like had it been made ten years earlier (the film was notorious for going through a hellish developmental process) when directors like Martin Scorsese, William Friedkin, and Brian De Palma were attached to direct. However, much like Stone did with Wall Street and with Born on the Fourth of July he shows he has a knack for finding the right talent for the role. When the film was initially being shopped around the studios wanted Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp, John Travolta (!), or Richard Gere (!!) to play Morrison. I can only think that Stone saw Kilmer's performance in the musical farce Top Secret! and knew he had found his man. So, kudos to Stone for once again finding the right leading man for his film; however, that doesn't make for the disastrous direction that is on display throughout most of the film; a film that is only saved by its lead performance and some wonderful concert footage shot by the great Robert Richardson. Stone can do better. And despite this botched attempt at a biopic, Stone would in fact redeem himself with his next film: his most (arguably) controversial and ambitious project to date.


  1. "I really dislike The Doors. I think they're perhaps one of the most overrated bands in the history of rock and roll; however, you can't discount their influence on the genre, and specifically Morrison's influence."

    Well Kevin, I do not agree with this position myself, but you do presentquite an incredible argument in this dazzling essay. The greatest American rock group of all time in my opinion is THE BEACH BOYS. But right after that would come THE DOORS, CSNY, CREEDENCE CLEARWATER REVIVAL and the crossover soul group THE SUPREMES. Songs like "The End," "Light My Fire," "LA Woman" and my own favorite, "Touch Me" have become part of the culture, and films like APOCALYPSE NOW have further immortalized the Jim Morrison legacy. It's also a defining coda of the hippie/drug culture of the 1970's though you have supported this yourself, while still saying you weren't a fan of their music. Stone, Kilmer, et al did a fine job with this film in presenting the 'fatal attraction' that eventually doomed Morrison.

    Again, superlative and exhaustive piece here.

  2. 'Fraid we must part company on The Doors' actual music... but, regretfully, I kind of agree with your sentiments on this movie. The Doors is just not a very strong film. Stone, as you said, wanted to exaggerate Morrison's mythology rather than be more faithful to his actual life, but I thought this got tiresome after awhile. The movie goes to laborious pains to portray Morrison as just the biggest jerk in the music industry; the movie doesn't say anything good about him. That's not to say that I wanted a more sympathetic biopic of the man, but SURELY the real Morrison wasn't this much of a bastard? I think I eventually gave up on the movie by the time of the sequence in which he's high/drunk/whatever and is parading through the audience singing "Break on Through" and inviting everyone to dance with him... seriously, Stone? Seriously?

    Right at this moment people would probably compare Stone's execution of this film to Raging Bull, since that is another biopic that portrays its subject in a largely negative light. But Scorsese ultimately regards Jake LaMotta with a kind of poetic sadness, whereas Stone can only look upon Morrison with a pessimistic point of view that feels at once invalid, gullible and, finally, unsatisfying. I'm not entirely sure how I would have made the movie differently, but I would hope I'd at least encourage the audience to be more enamored with Morrison, his personal flaws and all--not the other way around. This movie leaves more to be desired.

  3. I've always thought Manzarek's quip about it being "A White Powder Movie about a psychedelic band." kind of summed it up.

    But yeah, I like The Doors as far as it goes, but Morrison cashed out his chips at just the right time. Some serious depreciation was about to go down.

  4. Thanks, all, for the comments. I know I'm in the minority on The Doors as a band...I've just never liked 'em and I never understood what all the fuss was about.

    Sam: thanks for reading and for the comment. Always great to have you here.

    Adam: You make a great point about Stone's version of Morrison...and you're right, Scorsese saw LaMotta's life story as something along the lines of a Greek Tragedy. So I think they're pretty different, in fact. You never got the sense that Morrison was the way he was because of his environment.

    Bryce: I think Manzarek was the one who was anti-Stone the whole time. Didn't he end up finally making his own doc (released last year?) about the band?