The year is 1991, and Oliver Stone is slaving away on two feature films. The first was The Doors, and the end of the year saw the release of JFK, which is probably his masterpiece, although Natural Born Killers is on par. He was also in the midst of trying to get Evita made, although in the end he only supplied a screenplay (which was heavily rewritten by Alan Parker by the time it was released five years later.) The Doors was kind of a new beginning for Oliver Stone’s filmmaking, with a bigger emphasis on the aesthetics of his films rather than the storytelling, all done through the visual choices and especially his extraordinary editing.
Oliver Stone served during the Vietnam war, and if anything looms over his films, it’s that experience and the dissatisfaction he felt when he came home after the war, like many soldiers. It’s why he has made a trilogy of films about Vietnam. When he was fighting over there, he was first introduced to the music of this then-hip L.A. band called The Doors, and became an instant fan. On his return from Vietnam, he actually wrote a script inspired by The Doors’ song “The Unknown Soldier” and sent it to the band’s lead singer Jim Morrison. He never knew whether Morrison saw it until he was given the script back during post-production: it was found in the apartment Morrison may have died in.
The genesis of a film on The Doors goes all the way back to the ’80s, when Columbia Pictures got the life rights from The Doors and Morrison’s estate. Brian De Palma, Martin Scorsese and William Friedkin all expressed an interest in making the film, but from the get-go producer Sasha Harari wanted Oliver Stone to at least write the screenplay. Stone was still primarily known as a screenwriter due to his scripts for Midnight Express (for which he won an Oscar) and Scarface. However, Stone’s autobiographical Platoon and Wall Street were back-to-back smash hits commercially and critically, so suddenly he could do whatever he wanted.
From the start, the surviving band members saw Stone with a mixture of approval and disapproval. Ray Manzarek would quickly fall out with the director over his vision for the project, which was far more of a hallucinatory depiction of Morrison as this kind of Dionysian god, while Manzarek wanted the film to be more about the MUSIC, man! By the time the film was finished, all surviving members of The Doors were disappointed with the film to some degree, although all have called Val Kilmer’s performance very close to at least the public persona of their friend Jim.
The finished film is a kaleidoscopic look at the Morrison mythology: it literally starts with a recording of Morrison’s uber-pretentious An American Prayer and a childhood memory of the singer (played by Stone’s son Sean) witnessing a Native American dying by the side of the road out in the desert. Morrison spoke about this being the formative moment of his life. He would reference the memory throughout songs, interviews and, of course, that sixth-form level poetry he published. Stone even appears as Jim’s UCLA film teacher, a role and sequence I’m sure he had a blast with, including the pretentious film Morrison is screening for his fellow students.
The first hour or so is the usual musician-biopic tropes: the band gets together, they have that moment where they write the big hit song (in this case, “Light My Fire”), their audience grows and grows, and so does their notoriety. There is a sequence early on where the band goes out to Death Valley to take psychedelics—it’s either acid or peyote, and it doesn’t matter as Morrison was known to take both in Herculean doses, while the rest of the band just dabbled once in a while early on. It’s an early indicator that this will be a more daring biopic than, let’s say, Bohemian Rhapsody. The “trip” sequences are beautiful, and more than once they are reminiscent through their use of stark primary colours of the work of Nicolas Winding Refn years later.
The production design, especially for the first 80 minutes or so, is expertly done, for example with Love headlining the Whisky Go-Go. The Doors wouldn’t have formed if it weren’t for John Densmore and Robby Krieger seeing Love early on, which convinced these total jazz snobs that rock n’ roll was something more than mindless fun. Love were the big local act before The Doors came onto the scene. Although The Byrds were better known nationally, Love was the big draw on the Sunset Strip around the time The Doors formed. Stone and his production assistant even have more or less time-appropriate film posters on the wall of The Whiskey, including one for John Frankenheimer’s paranoid psychedelic masterpiece Seconds, something I only noticed on this new Blu-ray. It may be in there to symbolise Stone’s belief that Morrison wanted out of The Doors and felt constrained by the band, much like the character of Tony Wilson in Seconds does with his life. Like Wilson, Morrison gets an opportunity to “escape,” but it goes horribly wrong in the end.
However, the film is not without its flaws with it comes to period detail, from the sighting of a billboard for Another 48 Hrs to the fun if frankly at times embarrassing depiction of Andy Warhol’s Factory scene. It’s well-known that Morrison and The Velvet Underground’s Nico had a hot steamy fling, which greatly affected her life, including encouraging her to write her own songs. Stone embarrassingly depicts this mysterious Germanic proto-goth goddess as one of the prostitutes he was known to pick up once or twice during his young hellraiser days. Nico wears a fancy-dress ’60s black plastic minidress, which she never would’ve worn, and doesn’t have more depth than giving Jimbo a blow-job in the Factory elevator. The very short depiction of Edie Sedgwick is very accurate, but then you have Paul Williams, who seems to be channeling Truman Capote for some reason, playing some kind of assistant to Andy Warhol. Capote was known to visit the Factory, but obviously wasn’t an assistant to Warhol. Crispin Glover plays Warhol and is clearly having a great time with the role. He just about pulls off the line “Somebody gave me this telephone… I think it was Edie… yeah it was Edie… and she said I could talk to God with it, but uh… I don’t have anything to say… so here… this is for you… now you can talk to God” with conviction. Crispin was also the first actor to portray Warhol. You do get the Velvet Underground blasting during this sequence throughout. Lou Reed HATED The Doors, but The Doors liked The Velvets very much.
The film does start to run out of steam after the sequence depicting the infamous concert in Miami, Florida, where Morrison may or may not have exposed his penis on stage. The Miami sequence is depicted as some kind of orgy in the court of Caligula, which is laughable, but in the haze of acid and marijuana and nature of the film it also works. The depiction of the demise of the band is not completely wrong, because after the incident the band was falling apart. Morrison was getting fatter by the day and growing his beard, then decides to move to Paris after a kangaroo court finds him guilty. The Doors had just finished and released L.A. Woman, which was somewhat of a comeback record after some releases perceived as lackluster, including the underrated brass-heavy and experimental The Soft Parade.
Stone’s film on The Doors remains one of the more successful biopics in a genre, which seems to have had a massive resurgence recently with the success of Bohemian Rhapsody and the Elton John biopic Rocketman. The Rocketman sequence in the Troubadour where the audience levitates seems to owe more than a little to Stone’s film. Val Kilmer looks, and more importantly sounds, the part. The concerts scenes are Kilmer singing with instrumental backing tracks of the Doors backing him up. The rest of the cast includes Kyle MacLachlan (Ray Manzarek), Kevin Dillon (John Densmore) and Frank Whaley (Robby Krieger). All give very fine performances, but it’s all about Morrison’s story and Kilmer’s performance in the end. Meg Ryan tries her best with the rather thankless role of Pamela Morrison, Jim’s long-suffering girlfriend, and look out for Michael Madsen as the Warhol actor Tom Baker (who was one of Morrison’s closest friends). Even Billy Idol has a bit part, but it’s hard to recognize him—he had a small hit with a cover of “L.A. Woman” around the time of the film.
Oliver Stone has slightly recut the film, trimming a couple minutes near the end. It’s fairly minor, but I’m sure some of the most hardcore fans will debate the virtues of the change. The original theatrical cut is also included for purists. Stone’s old commentary on the theatrical cut is also included. The two main new extras are interviews with Stone and with Dolby Almos mixer Lou Bender (the film has been completely remixed for a home cinema experience). Stone needs to lay off the acid, because he cites both Weird Science and Real Genius as the films that got him interested in Val Kilmer as Morrison—the problem is that Val Kilmer wasn’t in Weird Science…
The Doors is available in a UHD boxset and also a more general two-disc Blu-Ray set. The contents are the same on the UHD disc and movie disc of the Blu-rays, besides the transfer of course. The second Blu-Ray disc includes 44 minutes of deleted scenes, a doc about the final months of Morrison’s life in France, and a more general retrospective making-of along with more featurettes. If you do buy the UHD set, you also get the Tom DiCillo documentary When You’re Strange, which is one of the better of the many documentaries on The Doors.