Director: Oliver Stone
This isn’t so much a review of the film itself, but more just that I want to scribble down a few thoughts after watching this for the first time since I saw it 30 years ago in the cinema.
I’m interested in what people think of the film, and of The Doors themselves, and whether Oliver Stone does them justice here.
It’s pretty derided, isn’t it, this movie? The very model of how to make an overblown, ridiculous rock biopic, and taking itself far too seriously. And yet… It must have done something right because when I saw this as a teenager it absolutely blew me away and (along with Pink Floyd’s The Wall) solidified in my head the archetype of the alpha male rock star: that ‘elegantly wasted’ thing, an old head on young handsome shoulders (with leather trousers and a six pack) going on a voyage of self discovery and excess, too cool for the square that is trying to box them in. Is there any one among you who also saw this as a teenager and is going to deny the big effect it had on them?
As we get older, of course, we become aware that the true story of rock and roll lies not with the attractive figureheads with good cheekbones and a decent singing voice, but with all the little uncool guys in the background, the songwriters, musicians and technicians who actually shaped the sound and style of the genre.
The fabled ’27 club’ seems like a mystical, desirable thing to a naive teenager. But the older you get, you realise how stupid that whole thing is, and how much more respect you have for the grafters of the rock world who have grown into a mature career and kept their dignity intact.
So in revisiting The Doors movie I was expecting a sense of ambivalence, a little laugh at my teenage pretensions. The same way I now feel when I listen to The Doors themselves. I can never really listen to them without feeling I have grown out of them. Musically, I enjoy many of their tunes – mainly the ‘pop’ songs like People Are Strange and Touch Me, timeless, faintly goth-y/glam-y vignettes as fresh as anything by The Cure or Bowie. But this rebellious, nihilistic Rimbaud/Blake/Kerouac thing, “We want the world and we want it now!”, “I am the Lizard King!”, “The killer walked on down the hall….” … (with a doom-laden organ drone and exotic sounding guitar, vamping over a single chord for ten minutes at a time…) …. all this stuff just sounds embarrassing to a middle-aged man with bifocals, a mortgage, a lawn-mower and a drawer for lightbulbs and batteries.
But… surprise… it’s actually a really good film. The trick, I think, is to just accept the message for what it is. If you are looking for a portrayal of a narcissistic singer/poet who truly believes ‘a prolonged derangement of the senses is the only way to achieve true knowledge’ (or whatever the Morrison quote is), then this is that movie. It jumps into it wholeheartedly, and pursues its vision with remarkable purity and consistency. These are the kinds of film Oliver Stone makes, I suppose. He just jumps into his subject matter with both feet and doesn’t doubt himself or look back for a second.
It’s all ridiculously over-blown of course. Watching this, you would be forgiven for thinking bonfires, shamanic dances, aggressive policemen and rioting hippies were commonplace at Doors concerts – which makes it all the more sobering when you see actual Doors concert footage – the crowd politely seated, Morrison huddled behind the microphone and barely moving from the spot. But that doesn’t make the concert footage in the movie any less thrilling.
The same goes for the scenes of partying, drug-taking and whatnot (the movie is little more than a well-executed series of these sequences). But does it matter how pretentious it is in the end? The craftsmanship is impeccable, Val Kilmer is the absolute epitome of Jim Morrison, and for all its pomposity the film has remarkable internal consistency. If you switch off your logical, mature mind for two hours then it’s a real trip (man). It’s very similar in style to Stardust (the David Essex film), with a similar tale of the rise and fall of a self-absorbed rock star, and a similar economy of storytelling and scene-building, but with none of that movie’s faint naffness and whiff of fakery (I never believed in Jim MacLaine and the Stray Cats like I believed in Jim Morrison and The Doors).
In many ways, the Jim Morrison of The Doors movie is a more solid and easier to grasp creation than the mythical Jim Morrison himself. The Doors albums are far more diverse than the movie suggests, and the movie wisely focuses almost solely on the Lizard King poet persona rather than the confusing sidelines of psychedelia, blues, music hall and funk. I think that was a good choice, and it hones and focuses the vision. To try and capture the whole messy essence of the band would have been too sprawling and unsatisfying. With the clear through-line and momentum of Oliver Stone’s direction, you really get a clear sense of the death obsession, the alcoholism, the restlessness of (within the context of the movie) a visionary prophet who is too big for the world.
It’s also clear that the movie is looking at things from a point of advantageous hindsight, a 25-year history of the rock industry shaping and solidifying the template which Jim Morrison pretty much created. You can see this in an endless parade of wannabe transcendent frontmen (from the top of my head, the following all try to ape Morrison in some way with a manly baritone croon, a beatific stare and an affectation of hedonistic abandon: Iggy Pop, Michael Hutchence, Bono, Julian Cope, Nick Cave, Ian Curtis, em… Jim Kerr…). The movie wisely stirs all these things back into the pot, making Val Kilmer into something of an uber-rock star. Maybe only David Essex in Stardust actually comes close to this, and he has the advantage of being an actual bona fide rock star in real life. Is there anyone else on rock celluloid who betters Val Kilmer in The Doors? Maybe Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart has a similar authenticity… maybe… but that’s a whole different type of movie.
Anyway, that’s my slightly rambling take on things. To sum it up, I watched The Doors movie for the second time in thirty years and really enjoyed it.
Might appeal to people who enjoyed:
The obvious comparison, as I mentioned a couple of times above, is Stardust. But in a weird way this film is also a very good compliment to more cynical takes on the rock lifestyle, like Spinal Tap and Some Kind of Monster. The Doors is the movie where you take the legend and treat it with utmost seriousness instead of trying to slyly undermine it.