The Doors Review
James Douglas Morrison was born in 1943 and died in 1971, aged 27, one of three famous rock stars who died that year, the others being Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. All three cast an enormous shadow down through the years - Joplin as an emblem of the ability of women to rock on the same level as men, Hendrix as a standard for rock guitarists and musicians to emulate and Morrison as an icon for teenagers to worship when their minds turn towards death. You know these kids - they'll be hanging around the war memorial, city hall or children's playground come evening time and if you ever visit Pere Lachaise, the cemetery in Paris where Jim Morrison is buried, you'll see them by the dozen. Of course, it's doubtful whether or not they own any Doors' albums but that's all right because Morrison's legacy is about death, youth, drugs, black leather, looking good and dying young but it's not about the music. And if that's what you want out of the story of Jim Morrison, then that's what this film will deliver.
The Doors recorded six studio albums of varying quality but you'd never know it from watching this, so quickly are they covered. The first two - The Doors and Strange Days - were worked up over months of playing live on Sunset Strip in LA and are classic albums from the late 60's. Waiting For the Sun and The Soft Parade are, respectively, pretty good and just all right, developed in the studio and containing a fair number of duds. The Soft Parade was The Doors' attempt to do a Sgt Pepper with brass and string sections called in to embellish songs that were weak to begin with but Waiting For The Sun contains some of The Doors' prettiest songs including Yes, The River Knows and Summer's Almost Gone. Morrison Hotel/Hard Rock Cafe was a taut return to form with straightforward rock and their final recording as a four-piece, LA Woman, was the band's greatest, an album which mixed pyschedelia, Morrison's poetry and American blues to wonderful effect.
There was a tradition on The Doors' early albums to finish with an extended final song. The Doors, the first album, had The End, Strange Days had When The Music's Over and Waiting For The Sun was supposed to have Celebration Of The Lizard, a Morrison song, but the other Doors who disliked it, dropped it from the album apart from one fragment - Not To Touch The Earth. Celebration Of The Lizard was a long poem; broken into separate pieces, detailing the power that Morrison has as he awakes in a dusty, mysterious city, and who becomes possessed by the lizard. As the Lizard King, he runs with outlaws, is worshipped where he travels and occupies a supernatural state above us mortals. Finally, he leads an army back to the town of his birth and the song finishes on the eve of battle where he will occupy the hearts and minds of those who opposed him.
The problem with Celebration Of The Lizard is that it is a humourless piece, egotistical and hard to like apart from a couple of short sections, much like the character played by Val Kilmer in this film, which buys into the legend of the Lizard King so completely that the real Morrison may well be lost.
For example, Morrison claimed that, as a boy, he had witnessed the aftermath of a road accident in New Mexico in which a number of Native Americans were fatally injured. Out of the carnage, the soul of one of the Native Americans entered Morrison's body and shaped his future, breaking him out of his conventional upbringing. Sometimes, in the telling of this story, his father and mother were the cause of the accident, driving into the truck and dying on the roadside. However, his father was really a captain in the US Navy, eventually promoted to admiral, and present at the hostilities out of which developed the Vietnam war and there is no mention of there ever having been such an accident in New Mexico by any other member of the Morrison family.
Oliver Stone, seeing the truth as unimportant when faced with a legend - surprising given his later films JFK and Nixon - covers this, without question, in the first five minutes and for the next 129 includes every anecdote you'll ever have heard about Jim Morrison and many more you won't. Stone has Jim forming The Doors on a beach with Ray Manzarek, rehearsing "Light My Fire" and meeting Pamela Courson in the first fifteen minutes. After that, it moves along at a fair pace, not examining any aspect of Morrison's life in too much detail but packing in his rise to stardom through appearances on the Ed Sullivan show, meeting Andy Warhol at The Factory in New York and touring Europe.
Quickly, though, it all goes wrong through increasing alcohol and drug use. Morrison loses interest in the music, allowing Robby Krieger to take on much of the song writing duties, and an increasing belief in his own myth resulted in a fat, bearded Morrison losing his soul, fading away from him and shown in the film as a Native American floating away from his body as he stands onstage in Miami in 1969.
Miami is the final concert shown in the film, following shows on Sunset Strip, New Haven and San Francisco each indicating the level of success The Doors were enjoying and the state of Jim Morrison's spirit at the time. The Sunset Strip concerts are closely aligned to the music The Doors were playing - fresh and challenging pop/rock with a dark edge to it - shown here with Break On Through and The End played at The London Fog and The Whiskey A Go-Go. The Doors peaked commercially with Light My Fire and there is a brief clip of a concert at an unspecified location with Morrison swinging across the stage before diving into the audience.
Oliver Stone uses the concerts to indicate Morrison's relationship with the establishment - he is first arrested at New Haven and his mother and brother attend San Francisco but are ignored. It is, however, at Miami that he kicks hardest and, in return, is crushed. There's a moment in Absolutely Live, during the opening seconds to Back Door Man when a rage of noise and rhythm rips up out of silence, without melody, just unfocused anger. That is the closest sound on record to what happened in Miami in 1969.
Jim Morrison had stated that he was only experimenting with the emotions of the crowd as though everything was part of his grand plan but Oliver Stone uses it to break free from the Morrison legend, showing Miami as little more than a drunken slur from California, the west coast home of The Doors, to the east cost city, with Morrison breaking down during songs, insulting the audience and finally, exposing himself, though, in reality, this may not have happened as accounts by witnesses are inconclusive at best. There is chaos in the auditorium throughout, with Morrison dancing through the crowd whilst a riot ensues on-stage. He was arrested, brought to trial and eventually found guilty of indecent exposure.
What followed Miami were a succession of cancelled shows, Morrison breaking down and the eventual retreat into the studio to record Morrison Hotel/Hard Rock Cafe and LA Woman, then finally onto Paris to recover, get away from the madness and embrace his own death in an apartment he and Pamela were renting.
As with all celebrity deaths, it was reputedly mishandled so, as with Elvis after him, stories quickly sprung up that Morrison was, in fact, still alive. Much of this came from his own comment that he would fake his own death and disappear to Africa, influenced by the actions of Arthur Rimbaud, using the name Mr. Mojo Risin. Legend has it, though, that in 1974, a rescue station picked up a distress signal from someone matching that name saying he was stuck on a mountain with a broken leg. A few days later, Pamela Courson was found dead in the US. The Doors' manager, Bill Siddons, always insisted that Jim Morrison was dead though he did not see the body, only a sealed coffin. Oliver Stone knows enough to play with this, stating, "Jim Morrison is said to have died of heart failure" but leaves out much of the conspiracy theories surrounding his death, drugs and shadowy government agencies.
The film ends with a view through Pere Lachaise cemetery, showing the graffiti on the graves around Morrison's' and eventually onto Jim's headstone, a bust strewn with joints, candles, a tie, drinks and messages from tourists believing only in the Lizard King. These days have long gone - Jim Morrison's family have taken greater control over his grave, cleaning it, removing all graffiti and employing a security guard 24/7 to ensure nothing is left on the grave and, whilst pictures can be taken, video footage cannot. Jim Morrison's body has to be removed from Pere Lachaise in 2004 and it is assumed that his family will continue to remain silent over their role in continuing to guard Jim Morrison's remains and its eventual resting place.
You should be able to tell that The Doors is not really about the band as it concentrates solely on Jim Morrison and the film's success would be measured by Val Kilmer's ability to play the role. He does a good job but is hampered by the character he has to play - this is the Lizard King, after all, so he is never allowed to miss an opportunity to recite his poetry and lyrics. Rarely is Kilmer called upon to converse with any other character, preferring to stroll through the film quoting William Blake, Aldous Huxley and Dionysus. Jim Morrison was supposed to be charismatic but you wouldn't spend more than a couple of minutes in this Morrison's company without wandering off through boredom. Kilmer had, famously and controversially, dubbed his own voice over The Doors' original music, which angered many fans of the band and whilst he does not sound exactly like Morrison, he does a reasonable imitation and the results are probably preferable to lip-synching to the originals. Kevin Dillon as John Densmore and Frank Whaley playing Robby Krieger are not called on to do much but moan that Morrison is out of control and his lyrics are weird but Kyle MacLachlan does an accurate Ray Manzarek impersonation, capturing the man as a straight in a psychedelic world with a singer he doesn't really understand. There's very little exaggeration as he captures Manzarek perfectly in line with the period films that exist, such as Granada Television's The Doors Are Open.
Meg Ryan as Pamela Courson is basically Meg Ryan wearing a long, red wig and seems mismatched to Morrison's character but Courson's parents were involved with the film so there may be some truth in how she was portrayed. Kathleen Quinlan does a good job of playing Patricia Kennealy - the woman Morrison married in a Wicca ceremony and who renamed herself Patricia Kennealy-Morrison afterwards - but the bloodletting scene with Carmina Burana playing on the soundtrack is silly. To this day, Kennealy-Morrison describes herself as Jim's wife although Courson was the one that Jim made his firmest commitment to.
However, Dennis Burkley and Billy Idol, as Dog and Cat - no, really - destroy much of the second half of the film. Billy Idol appearing in a scene instils the same reaction as an iceberg must have done to the lookout on the Titanic - utter dread. He wades in with a cartoon punk sneer, much as he did in his videos to White Wedding and Hot In The City and you sit, half expecting him to say little more than "Rock'n'Roll". Unfortunately, most of his dialogue is even more awful than that. If there was even a record of Cat existing, his presence would be understandable but these two are tacked onto Tom Baker - who did exist and is played here by Michael Madsen - as hangers-on to Jim's party. There were characters that were real and might have been amalgamated into these two including Babe Hill, Paul Ferrera and Leon Barnard but the film would have been improved had Billy Idol's role been excised. Sadly, it smacks of finding a rock star of the day a role in a film, as though Billy Idol was ever considered the Jim Morrison of the late-80s.
One good decision that Oliver Stone took - as opposed to the one casting Billy Idol - was to make Death a character in the film, thinking that with the regularity with which Jim Morrison spoke about it, death should always be with him. The presence of Death really only becomes evident when watching the film on DVD and in listening to the director's commentary where Stone points out his appearances. Death is there at the crash in New Mexico, on horseback in the desert, in New York on a pony-trap, dancing behind Jim Morrison through the crowd in Miami and at a children's party hosted by Ray and Dorothy Manzarek. This scene is the most poignant and emotional of the entire film where Jim Morrison, drinking a little, watches himself as a child, walking through the crowd, always the outsider, only to sit with Death, who sit looking at the older Morrison before he leaves for the airport for his flight to Paris. Death is next seen leaving the bathroom in Paris where Jim lies dead.
Overall, it's a good film but not quite the biopic it could have been. Most fans of Morrison and The Doors will admit that the legend of the Lizard King is something that has overshadowed the music for over thirty-one years but in revisiting this film and rereading the Jerry Hopkins/Danny Sugerman biography, maybe Stone is right, maybe Morrison actually was really dislikeable and maybe it's necessary to separate the Morrison from his music - great albums, awful man.
The film is presented in non-anamorphic 2.35:1 and runs for 134mins with 35 chapter stops. It is not a particularly good transfer, being very soft with considerable blurring around the opening titles, which is a shame as Oliver Stone, along with director of photography Robert Richardson, made a great looking film. There is considerable use of Steadicam, creating a drugged view on the world, always moving. The concert footage looks good with San Francisco, in particular, looking simply fantastic. The show is filmed out in the open, the stage at the top of a hill that descends through the crowd to a bonfire. The concert uses the effects of the time including liquid-light shows and rear-projection and during the instrumental section of Not To Touch The Earth, Native Americans appear from Morrison's body, dancing on the stage with Ray Manzarek finally understanding something of the change which his friend has undergone.
The Miami concert looks just as good but instead of filming a great performance, it's completely out of control. The band stops and starts, Morrison is drunk, Krieger is on acid and the crowd are willing The Doors to implode. As the riot begins, the stage collapses and a Steadicam moves ahead of Jim Morrison through the crowd as chaos reigns around them. It is clear from watching it that Jim Morrison has changed completely but it looks superb - flashbulbs pop, stage lights sweep the crowd and the camera flies low through the concert hall.Without The Doors, it would be unlikely that Oliver Stone would have been equipped to make the films that followed including JFK and Natural Born Killers.
The film was originally released in Dolby Stereo but has been remixed into Dolby Digital 5.1. It is not a great 5.1 mix - the rear channels are used mainly for ambient effects such as thunder and the sound of the ocean but there is good use of low frequencies during the concert sequences. One particular section that sounds great is the party at The Factory - after hearing a lot by The Doors, Venus In Furs by The Velvet Underground collides with the noise of bombs going off on a TV report from Vietnam and, combined with the footage, including Edie Sedgwick, Nico, a Jim Morrison look-alike and an appearance by Death, it is really impressive.
The recording of Not To Touch The Earth actually sounds better than the original record, the organ remixed much louder, taking a song that was already psychedelic and turning it into a very trippy experience.
The film is well served with extras on the DVD.
Director's Commentary: Oliver Stone covers the making of the film, some background information on The Doors and Jim Morrison and the social environment out of which the band formed including his own exposure to the music when he was serving in Vietnam. The commentary is interesting when he discusses the character of Death, the effects used in the film, much of which were early CG shots by ILM, and the actors he used in the film and the characters they played. He is honest when he talks about Patricia Kennealy, saying that the film upset her due to his bringing together various women into a single person who happened to be real. He jokes that she might put a curse on him but does admit his mistake and that he should have handled it differently.
Stone also discusses Morrison's parents and that he, quite surprisingly, met them before filming began. Clara and George Morrison never comment publicly on their son and any information from them is of great interest. The impression given to Stone is that they simply never understood what happened to their son. Where he is less interesting is on the music and he makes a consistent mistake of calling Riders On The Storm, a famous song from the LA Woman, Killer On The Road.
Jump To A Song: A list of Doors and Velvet Underground songs, which can be accessed directly like DVD chapters.
Trailers: There are two available here - the first is a teaser trailer (2.35:1, 0m56s) showing Morrison walking down a corridor into a bright light while the second (1.85:1, 1m17s) shows clips from the film. Both trailers are presented in Stereo.
Featurette (4:3, Stereo, 6m16s): Briefly interviews Oliver Stone and many of the actors including all those who play The Doors.
Cast And Crew: Short descriptions and filmographies are given for actors Val Kilmer, Kyle MacLachlan, Kevin Dillon, Frank Whaley and Meg Ryan, Oliver Stone and DP Robert Richardson.
Production Notes (7 Pages): This features little that is not available elsewhere except for the information that Pamela Courson's parents were involved in how their daughter should be portrayed in the film.
Cinematographic Moments (6 Pages): This covers the use of the Steadicam and Technocrane to achieve the look of movement within the film.
Deleted Scenes (43m18s): These are introduced by Oliver Stone (2m13s) who regrets removing some of them from the final cut. All these scenes are presented in 2.35:1 Stereo:
1. 3m4s: The band are inside a club playing Gloria
2. 2m5s: The band are on Sunset Strip, chatting up some girls in a queue before Jim Morrison jumps on the roof of a car
3. 1m22s: Pamela and Jim are on a plane to New York talking about how they would like to die
4. 2m32s: An extended version of the press conference where Jim met Patricia Kennealy
5. 1m53s: A scene removed from the New Haven concert where they also play The Unknown Soldier
6. 3m5s: A scene showing a body search and fight with the police after the New Haven arrest
7. 2m4s: An additional studio scene as Morrison records An American Prayer
8. 2m27s: A scene showing Ray and Dorothy's wedding, followed by Pamela and Jim shopping for their dinner party
9. 3m5s: Morrison in a motel room with two groupies, initially crying but changing personality and becoming cruel when he hears Pamela outside the door trying to get in
10. 1m19s: More of Morrison in the studio recording An American Prayer
11. 7m06s: Jim, Cat, Dog, Tom Baker, Bill Siddons and Paul Rothchild on a flight to Miami during which they abuse the stewardess and pilot which, in reality, ended with Baker and Morrison - the only two on the real flight - being arrested on landing
12. 3m41s: Further footage of the Miami obscenity trial
13. 3m18s: Morrison and Manzarek walking away from the final party before Jim leaves for the airport and on to Paris
14. 4m0s: Extended ending with The Doors also playing Roadhouse Blues
None of the deleted scenes would really add that much to the finished film and one - the scene on the plane - would add to the running time, as Morrison also had to stand trial for being drunk and disorderly on an aircraft. Clearly Stone thought that one court case would be enough for the audience were they to remain sympathetic towards Morrison
The Road To Excess (4:3, Stereo, 38m38s): This is a good documentary covering The Doors, including footage of them playing live and being interviewed, the actors from the film and quite a number of interviews with Oliver Stone who gives his thoughts on the film, the band and Morrison's life. Val Kilmer and Kathleen Quinlan are allowed to talk about their characters and the real Patricia Kennealy is interviewed regarding how she was portrayed. Val Kilmer talks about how he got the job, recording his voice over music by The Doors and asking Stone to spot which, out of three recordings, were Kilmer and which were Morrison. They were actually all Kilmer but Stone didn't know that and Kilmer was in.
The Doors is a good film, not great, and certainly not as impressive as when I first saw it in the cinema in 1991. I am a fan of the music they recorded and much of it still sounds fantastic today, particularly Strange Days and LA Woman. When the film came out on DVD, I wanted a copy and, as it's still not out on Region 2, had to buy this on Region 1. This may well be as good a treatment as The Doors is going to get on disc - a Region 2 issue, should it ever appear, might offer an anamorphic transfer with slightly different extras but they would be duplicated from other DVDs available such as The Doors Are Open and, anyway, are kind of irrelevant to the film. The extras here are a good combination of information on the film and the band but suffer from a lack of involvement from the rest of The Doors, aside from some brief appearances by Robby Krieger in The Road To Excess.
And that is part of the problem - Oliver Stone wasn't there but based the film on books by John Densmore and Jerry Hopkins/Danny Sugerman. Ray Manzarek has always had a problem with Stone's version of events, preferring to put together his own Region 1 documentary though whether that is about The Doors or Ray Manzarek is open to question - that disc includes two student films directed by Manzarek. The best extras are ones we will never hear or see - an audio commentary from the remaining members of The Doors and a good documentary including Jim Morrison's parents as well as Ray, John and Robby.
It is now 2002 and following a concert on VH1 with the remaining members of The Doors playing live with a number of vocalists including Perry Farrell from Jane's Addiction, The Doors are set to go back out on tour with Ian Astbury on vocals, then returning to the studio to record a new album. John Densmore is not taking part, officially quoting health reasons, but making it clear elsewhere that he is unhappy with the tour, saying it is only about the money. Anyone who has heard the two post-Morrison albums will doubt the value of Manzarek and Krieger going into the studio again but even 32 years after Morrison's death, the troubled tale of The Doors continues.