The Doors Review
If someone who hated Jim Morrison had set out to denigrate him on film, they could hardly have done a better hatchet job than Oliver Stone does in The Doors. Despite claiming to love the music of the Doors and to have an almost spiritual understanding of Jim Morrison as an artist, he makes the singer out to be a whiny, sociopathic drug addict with an enormous ego and a self-destructive obsession with death. The film found favour with virtually nobody; the surviving members of the band; the other figures involved with them at the time; or the relatives of Morrison and his partner Pamela Courson. Twenty years on, it's as much a document about the obsessions of Oliver Stone as it is a biopic of Jim Morrison and, on that account, it's quite fascinating.
Oliver Stone's The Doors takes a broadly chronological approach to the Jim Morrison story – and it is the Jim Morrison story since the other members of the band rarely get a chance to be anything other than ciphers despite some very nifty performances. Beginning with a slightly hallucinatory flashback sequence to Jim's childhood, it takes us through the singer's disillusionment with the prevailing culture of the 1960s, his decision to form a band, his controversial behaviour on stage and his wilful progress towards self-destruction. The historical accuracy of the film has been questioned on numerous occasions by the people depicted and also by fans of the band – the general feeling seems to be that Stone's basic conception of the character of Jim Morrison is deliberately skewed to make him seem much more out of control than he actually was. Ray Manzarek is the most vocal critic and was the only member of the band who refused to co-operate with the film.
It's understandable that those who feel protective of the band and the lead singer feel unhappy since Morrison comes across so badly. It's not so much the excess, ludicrous though this sometime appears - the detail of constantly having a bottle or glass in hand makes him seem like the bastard hippie son of Nick and Nora Charles, and was it really necessary to make him impotent as well as drug-addled? It's more his vanity and self-obsession which make him appear ridiculous, particularly since its depicted so reverently by Stone. The poetry hasn't dated well, which is only to be expected since it is so much of its time and a rejection of the past, but did it really need to be filmed and intoned as if it were the collected works of Milton, Baudelaire and Eliot combined? When Jim recites a particularly awful lyric to Pam in order to seduce her, it only seems appropriate as a response to one of her apparently air-headed metaphysical speculations.
Which leads to another problem with the film – the depiction of Pamela Courson. Evidently, Stone needed to step carefully to avoid upsetting Courson's particularly vocal relatives who had threatened to deny access to Morrison's poetry which they controlled, but this results in her barely having a character at all and the insights she comes out with - “I saw Christ and Judas and realised they were one person” - are idiotic. Meg Ryan's performance doesn't go far to solving this problem since her idea of characterisation is putting her head on one side and adopting a quizzical smile. There's an attempt to contrast her with the journalist Patricia Kennealy but it doesn't go any further than turning Kennealy into an evil witch who seduces Morrison into the dark side. It should be said, however, that Katherine Quinlan gets far more mileage out of the one-dimensional caricature of Kennealy than Ryan gets out of the equally simplistic girlfriend character.
Having stated all of this, it's important to stress that there is a lot to like about The Doors, not least the central performance by Val Kilmer. He has always given the impression of being a vain and selfish actor so he's ideal for the film's characterisation of Jim Morrison and he certainly gives the role everything he's got. His charismatic interpretation makes you understand, far more than does the script, why people put up with this deeply annoying man in the first place and why he became such an iconic figure. The actors playing the other band members are also excellent with Kyle McLachlan a standout as Ray Manzarek, and there are lovely bits from Billy Idol and Michael Madsen. Visually, it's the feast you would expect from an Oliver Stone film and Robert Richardson's astonishingly creative lighting and use of colour are eye-popping. In the background throughout the film are the songs and they sound fresh and new – sometimes you just want to close your eyes and listen to the music as it's so intoxicating.
What makes the film so valuable is that it says so much about Oliver Stone. It's not just his characteristic overstatement – the sex scene with Kennealy is backed by the pounding choral sound of “O Fortuna” - although this is frequently in evidence. What's notable is that his strength is revealed as texture and context. The recreation of 1960s California is lovely and thoroughly convincing and the feel of being a rock star is viscerally exciting. There's a party at Andy Warhol's house which is completely convincing, right down to Nico offering blow-jobs in the elevator. Where Stone falls down is on the level of plot and character. Throughout his films, the shortcomings of story have been compensated for by a strong and sympathetic leading character so the meandering narrative thread hasn't mattered so much. But in The Doors, the Morrison figure is too annoying to gain our sympathy and so we're left with Stone's simplistic vision which takes real events and manipulates them into what suits his purpose. In JFK, facts were altered to conform to the basic theory about Lee Harvey Oswald's innocence and the lonely fight of one man to find the truth. In The Doors Stone wants to make the ultimate film about the myth of the Sixties and the movement from peace and love into drugs and disillusion. As part of the process, facts become irrelevant and the newly minted myth becomes all. When it works, Stone's method can be so dazzling and exciting that you don't notice the manipulation until afterwards. In The Doors, once you get past the cinematic brilliance, we simply see a rather irritating man going to his inevitable doom and are expected to take this a metaphor for, well, anything and everything. Ultimately, I feel, it just won't wash.
Optimum's Blu Ray release of The Doors offers a stunning transfer and a couple of very interesting extras which make up for the omission of the commentary and the making-of documentary from the 2003 Momentum DVD release.
The 1080p transfer of the film is an absolute beauty. The highly varied and sometimes extreme look of the film makes it a particularly challenging one for a Blu Ray producer. What we get here is a beautifully high level of detail and perfectly rendered colours, particularly the vibrant reds and oranges. I don't think the film has ever looked better than it does here, especially in the tricky smoky scenes. It certainly hasn't sounded this good before and the songs seriously rock in this DTS-HD MA 7.1 mix. Dialogue is always clear and crisp and the surrounds, while often surprisingly subtle, do wonders for viewer involvement.
The extras are limited to two lengthy documentaries. The first, Jim Morrison; A Poet In Paris is about the final months in the singer's life and places special emphasis on the possible explanations for his death on the 3rd July 1971. This 2006 French documentary, directed by Jacques Viallon, is serious and detailed, commenting on Pamela Courson's role in considerably more depth than the film. The portrait of Jim Morrison is notably more sympathetic as well, largely taking him seriously as a poet and artist. This documentary is in French with subtitles. The second feature is Back To the Roots, a Studiocanal piece in English about the influence that The Doors had on Stone, Kyle McLachlan and other figures including Jean-Jacques Burnel from The Stranglers. This is interesting enough but not nearly as fascinating as the 2003 making-of.
Although there are several language options, there do not appear to be any hard-of-hearing subtitles available.
The Doors is a deeply flawed film but it's also compulsively watchable and made with a seemingly effortless skill. If you've yet to see it, then this Blu Ray offers a fine way to see what you've been missing, especially since the strengths of the film and the strengths of the format are so finely attuned.