Original release: March 1st, 1991
Running time: 140 minutes
Director: Oliver Stone
Writers: Oliver Stone, J. Randall Johnson
Cast: Val Kilmer, Frank Whaley, Kevin Dillon, Meg Ryan, Kyle MacLachlan, Billy Idol, Michael Masden, Kathleen Quinlan
I remember listening to The Doors records as a teenager; in candlelit rooms with red walls where incense cast shadows as they burned, spiralling smoke plumes moving swiftly through the night air. Jim Morrison’s lyrics echoed and urged the rebellious nature of my adolescence to break on the through to the other side. Along with Lou Reed, they effortlessly persuaded me to kiss those boots of shiny leather while watching soundless reels of Warhol films starring Joe Dallesandro. The Doors, or rather Morrison, the self-professed The Lizard King, and his lyrics, played a large part in my reckless, misspent youth.
But long before his words spoke to me, they spoke to Oliver Stone, back when he was 21 years old and serving in Vietnam. Although directors like Brian De Palma, Martin Scorsese and William Friedkin toyed with the idea of making a film about the band, none of them did. In 1991, Stone would be the one to deliver.
The film begins with Morrison (Val Kilmer) arriving in California in 1965 where he follows Pamela Courson (Meg Ryan) to her home and subsequently integrates himself into the Venice Beach scene. After meeting fellow UCLA student, Ray Manzarek (Kyle MacLachlan), he then goes on to form a band with him, Robby Krieger (Frank Whaley), and John Densmore (Kevin Dillon), calling themselves The Doors.
It then charts the band’s rise from their first rehearsals through to their sell-out shows, right up to Morrison’s untimely death at the age of 27 on July 3rd, 1971. Rather than being a straightforward biopic, Stone blends Morrison’s poetry with hallucinogenic imagery to give us a sense of the ideas that fuelled his indomitable spirit, his growing obsession with death and his induction into pagan rituals with writer Patricia Kennealy (Kathleen Quinlan).
Yet Stone also takes some liberties with the truth and his depiction of certain events, contrast with John Densmore’s 1990 autobiography Riders On The Storm and the documentary When You’re Strange (2009), which Ray Manzarek described to Billboard magazine in 2008 as “the true story of the Doors”.
Kilmer’s portrayal of the rock legend is compelling and uncanny. He not only resembles Morrison, but after spending a year learning everything about him, he managed to perfect his walk, stance, mannerisms and nearly a hundred other nuances, but most of all, his voice. Stone peppers the film with numerous songs from the band including the haunting Oedipal epic, The End, Light My Fire, People Are Strange, You’re Lost Little Girl and Break On Through, along with two Velvet Underground songs, the unearthly Venus In Furs and Heroin. They appear at key moments and add to the narrative, as opposed to them being randomly inserted.
Despite the film’s lead performance, superb cinematography and ethereal music, there are some flaws. The script edges toward lustreless at times and the story moves painfully slow. Morrison’s depicted as a rather one dimensional character, prone to tantrums and coming across as a stoner. We rarely catch a glimpse of him outside of his persona and as a result we learn nothing much we didn’t already know. Stone eschews telling this side of the story in favour of his own.
Yet there are fascinating insights. Morrison’s meeting with Warhol for example, where he takes off the artist’s glasses. How did the universe not combust when these two met, I don’t know, but this scene, as short as it is, told much while Warhol babbles on about giving Morrison a telephone so he can talk to God.
While the screenplay and pacing brings it down a few notches, it’s still hard not to fall in love with The Doors. It’s an Oliver Stone film and this much is clear from the way its shot and edited. The cinematography is masterful from beginning to end and with the incredible music it makes for an unforgettable movie experience while also reminding us that while the world was going to Hell at this time, the music quite simply came from somewhere else.
The founder of Static Mass Emporium and one of its Editors in Chief is a composer and music producer with a philosophy degree. Static Mass is where he lives his passion for film and writing about it. A fan of film classics, documentaries and World Cinema, Patrick prefers films with an impeccable way of storytelling that reflect on the human condition.
You can find his music on Soundcloud .