The ultimate story of sex, drugs, and rock & roll.
This is a tough review for me to write. In a sense, it’s not unlike complaints that were levied against the film — I only know them as a spectator, as a chronicler of history. I’ve seen only four of Oliver Stone’s fifteen films, none of which are his most controversial. That count of four films includes the movie at hand, Platoon (which put me to sleep), Wall Street (which I love), and Born on the Fourth of July (which I only watched half of). I’m familiar with his work more as an outsider, someone who reads about his films and talks with people about them, but who never watches them. Reaching further back, I was born in 1975. That was four years after the controversial death of the controversial leader of The Doors, Jim Morrison. My familiarity with their songs begins and ends with what is played on classic rock radio and the contents of the two-CD “Best of The Doors” set I listened to in high school. I probably know “Light My Fire” word for word and note for note. I love “L.A. Woman” and “Hello I Love You” and “Break On Through.”…all their signature songs. Songs like “The End” weirded me out, and still do.
Now that you’ve heard the disclaimer, you’re probably wondering, why am I reviewing this movie? Someone had to. It intrigued the hell out of me. I’ve always wanted to see more of Stone’s films, but have always found better uses of my time. I had heard strange, titillating details about Morrison’s life, and wanted to voyeuristically experience them. I love the music.
The Doors as a title may be inclusive of the entire band that was The Doors, but as a movie it focuses exclusively upon Jim Morrison, for he was the heart and soul of the band, the only one the public really cared about. The Doors weren’t The Beatles, where the group was thought of as an autonomous collective. The Doors were Jim Morrison, the poet, the rock god.
The Doors concerns itself mostly with the life and times of Jim Morrison from the forming of the band to his untimely death in Paris in 1971. Along the way it takes brief looks at his relationships, his rapport (or lack thereof) with his bandmates, and the controversy of his several arrests (one of which resulted in a conviction and jail sentence that he had not yet served at the time of his death). It takes much time to dwell on Morrison’s poetry and music, as well as his decline into the sensory deprivation of drugs and alcohol.
When looking at historical or biographical dramatizations, you can take two approaches to the material: how does it measure up to the historical record, or how does it measure up as a piece of entertainment. Sometimes, there is not much divergence between the two. Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures is a very accurate portrayal of the real story of two girls in 1950s New Zealand who committed cold-blooded murder. Certain details were omitted in the translation, but the facts as presented are very precise. (Have you ever heard of mystery writer Anne Rule? She was one of the girls.) James Cameron’s Titanic may have been accurate with the minutiae of set decoration and depiction of the ship itself, but the facts of its sinking are very muddled. Braveheart takes great liberties with the life and times of William Wallace.
With The Doors, you cannot forget for a second that this is the work of Oliver Stone. With historically based films such as JFK or Nixon, Stone established a reputation as the grand manipulator of truth, bending it to suit the whims of his radical political beliefs. His take on the life of Jim Morrison is exactly that: his take on the life of the poet and musician the world is and was familiar with. He showed the aspects of Morrison’s life that he deemed fit to display. Where it served his purpose, he was quite accurate with the small details; from every account I’ve read, his depiction of the infamous March 1, 1969 Miami concert that led to Morrison’s arrest on charges of obscene behavior is very accurate, right down the exact words that Morrison used to insult the audience. In other places where it served his whim, Stone played hard and fast with the facts. Patricia Kennealy Morrison, the woman who Morrison married in a Celtic pagan wedding ceremony, took great umbrage to Stone’s portrayal of her relationship with Morrison. (He has admitted that he attributed characteristics of other women in Morrison’s life to Kennealy, and regrets doing so.) Great liberties were taken with Morrison’s relationship with Pamela Courson, but some of that can be attributed to her surviving parents’ insistence that certain portions of their daughter’s life with Morrison be kept a secret.
I think that’s perhaps the most telling part of this entire discourse on the making of The Doors and the veracity thereof. I’m at the mercy of my sources, so you can take this all with a grain of salt — I know I certainly am. Stone ran into considerable roadblocks when making the film. The three surviving members of the band were very unwilling to have their lives (or the life of Jim Morrison) portrayed by any filmmaker. It was only the insistence of guitarist Robbie Krieger that Stone was a good filmmaker that got the others to agree. To this day, keyboardist Ray Manzarek denounces the film. The rights to The Doors’ recordings and story rights are divided four ways, between the surviving band members and the estate of Jim Morrison. Therein lies the problem. In a 1968 will, Morrison willed everything to his longtime girlfriend Pamela Courson. When she died three years after Morrison, what remained passed to her parents. Entré Patricia Kennealy Morrison. In the 1960s, she was one of the first female rock journalists. She met Morrison in 1969, and the two became involved. Oh, and I should also mention that she was (and is) a Celtic witch. In 1970, she and Morrison were married in a Celtic wedding ceremony (though never legally recognized as husband and wife). She has written extensively about her relationship with Morrison; I read portions of her book, Strange Days: My Life With And Without Jim Morrison, in preparation for this review. According to Kennealy-Morrison, Courson was a heroin addict and coerced Morrison to take the drug on the night of his death. She goes on to say that his death could have been prevented if Courson had acted in time. She also says that Courson wasted away his entire fortune after his death, turned to prostitution, and died penniless. (If you don’t want to pay for the book, her website, LizardQueen.com, contains much of the pertinent information. In fact, if you give a damn about The Doors or Jim Morrison, it’s required reading. Granted, she’s very venomous, and it’s just her version of the truth, but it’s one side of the truth that you’re unlikely to hear anywhere else.) When Courson died, her estate (and ergo the estate of Jim Morrison) passed to her parents. When Oliver Stone wanted to make the movie, the involved parties had to sign their consent, and Courson’s parents coerced Stone into portraying their daughter in a flattering light. This included excising all references to her heroin addiction, that she introduced Morrison to the drug, and therefore sanitizes the record of her involvement in his death.
That’s the long-winded way of saying that The Doors may not be entirely truthful, like a few of Stone’s other historical films, but in this instance the blame does not lie entirely at his feet. Or, to reemphasize, the blame does not lie entirely at his feet. The Jim Morrison of The Doors is the Jim Morrison that Oliver Stone envisioned. Other details, like the personalities of the women in his life and most importantly, the details of his death, are fictionalizations that were foisted upon his film by outside forces.
As for the film itself…well, again I have to state that I’m not that familiar with Oliver Stone’s body of work. I have second-hand impressions of many of his films, but I’ve seen few of them. By the time Stone made The Doors, he had won the Best Director Academy Award twice, for Platoon in 1986 and Born on the Fourth of July in 1989. The Doors was his 1991 follow-up to Born on the Fourth of July, but it would be overshadowed by the other film he would release that year: JFK. It was that film that firmly ensconced him as a major Hollywood player, and etched his reputation as a political filmmaker and skewer of the facts. It was also before the film that would define his filmmaking style: Natural Born Killers. Thankfully, The Doors was made before he became enamored with rapid-fire MTV style filmmaking and the random use of film stocks and recording mediums. Still, The Doors is distinctly a…hmm, what’s the right way to put it? An experience movie. It’s like being on a 138-minute bender. I was very glad that the first time through the movie I had just quaffed a very potent pint of some unidentified microbrew. The movie has its own internal logic and flow that, well, seems absolutely foreign and unintelligible if your mind isn’t somehow stupefied. I should know…I tried to watch it again a few days later without alcoholic stimulation, and it was a boring piece of crap. That’s an exaggeration, but I could only sit through about 45 minutes of it before giving up in boredom.
The actors are convincing in their roles, but hardly set a standard for fine thespianism. Val Kilmer’s (The Saint, Top Gun) portrayal of Jim Morrison is persuasive; with the exception of physical appearance, he looks, acts, and sounds very much like the Lizard King. It’s an oft-repeated piece of lore surrounding the film that he did most of his own singing, and you can scarcely tell the difference between the recordings of Jim Morrison and Kilmer’s performance. His “bandmates” can’t be thought of as his co-stars, as they take a backseat to the women of Morrison’s life. Meg Ryan (Sleepless In Seattle, Proof of Life) plays the sanitized version of Pamela Courson. Her performance here did nothing to change my impression of her as an airheaded floozy. Mike does not like Meg Ryan. Let’s leave it at that. You would think that Kathleen Quinlan (Apollo 13, Breakdown) as the witchy Patricia Kennealy would have a meatier part. Unfortunately, she is marginalized to scenes that portray her in unflattering lights: cavorting naked to the strains of “Carmina Burana.”…aiding and abetting Morrison’s arrest at a concert in New Haven, Connecticut…complaining that she does not want to abort the couple’s child. A talented actress such as Quinlan, playing a fiery personality like Kennealy, should not be treated so shamefully. As the other band members, Kyle MacLachlan (Blue Velvet), Kevin Dillon (Platoon), and Frank Whaley (Pulp Fiction) barely register. Only MacLachlan is given any significant screen time either by himself or opposite Kilmer. Other notables are Michael Madsen (Reservoir Dogs) as actor Tom Baker and Michael Wincott (The Crow — and he gets my vote for Creepiest Guy in Films) as The Doors’ manager (or producer, or some other vaguely defined sidelines role). Oh, and I must make special mention that Crispin Glover (Back to the Future) makes a bizarro cameo as Andy Warhol. There’s a few other faces you’ll probably recognize, but for the most part this is all Val Kilmer’s show.
This is the second DVD release of The Doors. While Artisan’s new two-disc set improves upon the original release in the extras department, it fails to excel in several other areas. The film is presented in 2.35:1 non-anamorphic widescreen. While the image is overall excellent, it is very disappointing that this edition (which we can assume it will be the last release for a while) did not include a new anamorphic transfer. Shame on them. I noticed no digital artifacts. The image is very clean — only minimal edge enhancement, no film grain, but it does show the occasional dust speck. Comparing it to the footage included with the documentary (more on that later), it’s a marked improvement, but it still could have benefited from the added resolution of an anamorphic transfer. Audio is Dolby Digital 5.1, the same as the previous release. It’s an impressive mix that may not strain your sound system but will at least give it a moderate aerobic workout. The rear channels do not appear to be directional (I’m guessing this is a remix of a theatrical Dolby Surround mix), but are used frequently in concert scenes to add dimension to the soundstage, as well as for the soundtrack in general.
As you’d expect from a two-disc set, plenty of extras are thrown at you. In the ever-clamoring DVD market, this two-disc barely registers against the 600-pound gorillas that were the Se7en, Terminator 2, Fight Club, or Gladiator sets. Unfair comparisons, the lot of ’em. I’d say the best comparison would be Fox’s two-disc Romper Stomper release: a small, strong set of extras to complement a niche release. Disc One offers up a commentary track by Oliver Stone; I did not critique it for this review, as I did not feel like sitting through the film again in such short proximity to my 1 1/2 other viewings. Disc Two gives us two trailers for the movie, a promotional featurette (clocking in at about six minutes), a documentary entitled “The Road of Excess,” deleted scenes, cast and crew bios, and production notes. The documentary is about 35 minutes long, and is a thorough look at the history of the film. It includes interviews with the principal cast, Oliver Stone, Robbie Krieger (The Doors’ guitarist and the only one who supported the film), and Patricia Kennealy-Morrison. While it didn’t contain much information I hadn’t already gleaned from outside sources, it nevertheless is a balanced look at the project. By “balanced,” I mean that it doesn’t paint Oliver Stone in rays of heavenly light. The opposing views are also expressed, especially by Kennealy-Morrison. There are eleven deleted scenes that add up to about 45 minutes of excised footage. As is typical with deleted stuff, some of it could have beneficially been left in the finished film, while other footage deservedly hit the cutting room floor. The production notes are quite a disappointment; they read like someone watched the documentary, and then summarized its high points.
Shame on you, Artisan! Why no anamorphic transfer? Why sloppy production notes? Why no English subtitles? Why was the extended cut, previously released on laserdisc, not provided, at least as a seamless branching option? Come on, you provided three cuts of Terminator 2, and that was just about time-traveling killer robots, not one of rock’s most important icons. Why not any more concert footage? Why not more biographical information about the real Jim Morrison? Why not biographical sketches of the other band members? Why not transcripts of his 1970 indecency trial in Florida? Why not the three dozen other extras that beg inclusion with this movie?
I understand that it can be difficult, if not impossible, to obtain the rights to supplemental material, especially with an emotionally charged project such as The Doors. However, if you’re going to replace a previous release, especially with identical audio and video content, why not wait until you can do the ultimate release? I can hear you saying, well, they did it for the mega-box set of Oliver Stone’s work. Okay, that makes sense, but still…
If you want to look at The Doors as an accurate, biographical look at the life of Jim Morrison, it’s a dismal failure. If you want to look at it as an Oliver Stone film that just happens to be loosely based on the life of a real guy, then it’s reasonable entertainment as long as you’re somewhat inebriated. I don’t blame Oliver Stone for its factual failings, so under the circumstances I believe he made the film as accurate as possible.
As a purchase, The Doors is recommended only for fans of the music or the director. As a rental it’s still for fans only, as the average person looking for an entertaining two hours will likely be disappointed. So will DVD collectors looking for the next kick-butt special edition to add to their collection.