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Are you, by any chance, in a trance now, Mr Morrison?

The Doors
(1991)

(SPOILERS) Oliver Stone’s mammoth, mythologising paean to Jim Morrison is as much about seeing himself in the self-styled, self-destructive rebel figurehead, and I suspect it’s this lack of distance that rather quickly leads to The Doors becoming a turgid bore. It’s strange – people are, you know, films equally so – but I’d hitherto considered the epic opus patchy but worthwhile, a take that disintegrated on this viewing. The picture’s populated with all the stars it could possibly wish for, tremendous visuals (courtesy of DP Robert Richardson) and its director operating at the height of his powers, but his vision, or the incoherence thereof, is the movie’s undoing. The Doors is an indulgent, sprawling mess, with no internal glue to hold it together dramatically. “Jim gets fat and dies” isn’t really a riveting narrative through line.

Pam: You got a problem with doors?

The Doors themselves, protectors of the legacy (Ray Manzarek especially, who didn’t want Stone on the project) were not impressed with the director’s fictionalised account of their ex-lead singer: “It was not about Jim Morrison. It was about Jimbo Morrison, the drunk. God, where was the sensitive poet and the funny guy? The guy I knew was not on that screen”. On such a score, you’d assume Stone, who venerated Morrison, was enacting a character assassination, but going back to my introductory paragraph, I suspect it’s rather that, in the rock icon’s troubled persona, he sees his own troubled soul reflected, even if he’d doubtless blanche at being compared to (as the bandmates saw Morrison’s depiction) an “out of control sociopath”.

The simple inevitability is that these biopics – whitewashes or warts ’n’ hogs – are rarely going to please everyone, even less so when keepers of the kingdom are still about to guard the legacy, and avid fans are there to pour over the minutiae of how and why the filmmaker failed to accurately portray their hero. The flip side of The Doors is something like Bohemian Rhapsody, an antiseptic, entirely palatable account of Freddie Mercury’s life (the difference with that movie, however much it may fail the sniff test of authenticity, is that it is breezily watchable, a vital task at which biopics often flounder when they attempt to hit all the necessary key events on the artist/icon’s journey).

Like Bohemian Rhapsody, there were different versions of The Doors panned at different times; Manzarek wanted it to be about all four band members equally, which was obviously barking (and yet, Stone did need to provide more substance to the other three than he delivers). Morrison’s parents only agreed a flashback appearance… of which more later. Pam’s folks wanted her portrayed as an angel and there to be no suggestion she caused his death or they’d veto Stone using Jimbo’s poetry. Stone admitted the final script was problematic, “but the music helped fuse it together”. Hmmm. Er, no. Occasionally, the combination of soundtrack and visual acumen is magical, but cumulatively, this becomes an obstacle, since Stone synchs up any given track to any given scene, often regardless of whether it’s germane; simply having The Doors’ back catalogue at his disposal is enough.

When channelled angrily (Salvador, JFK, Talk Radio) the Stone’s rampant id unleashed can be potent, but when philosophically musing, he tends to collapses in on himself in a pretentious visual and/or verbal quagmire (this, NBK, U-Turn), or end up plain inert, straining for a form and tone foreign to him (Heaven and Earth). He has, through his own experiences, a feel for drug hazes and psychedelia, readily aided and abetted by Richardson, but he has no particular priority beyond that it seems.

Which is fatal, particularly as it extends to a failure to get into Morrison’s head, or even make him into something traceable for the sake of the movie, beyond an elusively debauched rock god. Kilmer is evidently dedicated to the show, but while one might debate the key specifics of a true movie star, some aspect has to be that “love you”/”flock to see you” quality; Val never attained such a status, but the problem with Val as Morrison isn’t a lack of wattage. Stone gives him nothing to worthwhile to work on, nothing to make Jim magnetic or compelling.

With the result that the storyline drones on and on and on, as Jim takes drugs, takes drink, has arguments – with the band, with Pam (Meg Ryan), with the authorities – stir and repeat. Occasionally, some of this stands out and is memorable, from the Ed Sullivan appearance where – Stone’s version – Morrison not only says the “get much higher” line, but also lunges towards the camera, Michael Hutchence style, on “higher”. There’s a made-up “Pam’s roast duck dinner” that elicited scorn, but it is at least a memorable incident and one that will likely, had you any remaining goodwill towards this Morrison, end it entirely.

Ryan didn’t have a lot of fun on the movie – nor by accounts, did most female auditioners, required to act out sex scenes for their director – and she is done no favours by the Pam part, a fey adornment with little agency and cartload of shrewish outrage (when not failing to convince that she did some acid). Ryan’s quite naturalistic, unlike some of those present, but the role seems designed to make her the silly girl, “a cartoon of a girlfriend”, and Stone is unable to sell us the idea that these two lovers would be drawn to each other and stay together. Indeed, far more compelling are the occult scenes with Kathleen Quinlan initiating Jim (Patricia Kennealy was reportedly quite upset about being part of Stone’s “composite” character). Even if he can’t resist overdoing it with Carmina Burana.

John Densmore: I still think the lyrics are weird, man.

There’s the inevitable key composing-a-hit scene, revolving around Light my Fire, and Ray coming up with the key intro in a few minutes, but most of the other bandmates are little more than disgruntled wigs and fake beards; Kevin Dillon (John Densmore) isn’t convinced, because the “Lyrics are kind of weird, man”. Actually, they’re more commonly puerile (“I’m a back-door man, little girls understand”) or – the rhymes especially –pretty atrocious.

Robbie (Frank Whaley) is the one Morrison likes, and Ray is the square. Actually, for all that Manzarek disapproved (possibly with an eye on the bottom line), you inevitably gravitate to Ray’s reasonability and MacLachlan’s affability. That said, the use of Morrison’s ambient monologues may work best, since Stone’s aiming for precisely their kind of woozy swirl. And also because, with dialogue like “We took drugs to expand our minds. Not to escape”, he’s squarely in on-the-nose Platoon territory with his lack of nuance.

Generally, Francis Ford Coppola was much more successful with an evocative Doors soundtrack than Stone, but there is one entirely immersive sequence, as The End segues from some so-so desert tripping to a full-on concert. Stone loves the Dionysian dervish depiction of Morrison, and the posturing of the singer, manipulating the audience and the club owners, makes for a great piece of escalation, easily the most sustained section in the movie.

Andy Warhol: Somebody gave me this telephone.

Mostly, though, this is a garbled love poem to Jim, not a cohesive movie. There’s some fairly rancid opportunism derived from Native American heritage via an opening accident (invented by Morrison) that’s a shoe-in for Stone’s ceremonial, hallucinogenic death’s head ethos. He throws in his filmic likes (Jaen-Luc Goddard) and dislikes (Andy Warhol), and the picture actively begins to grate when the Warhol entourage intrudes. Even Paul Williams and Crispin Glover (phenomenally out of it) can’t save matters. Michael Madsen plays Michael Madsen as Tom Baker (no, not that one), replacing Billy Idol (who appears in a smaller part, having suffered a motorbike accident). Given how good Idol isn’t, even Madsen being Madsen is a relief. It’s emblematic of the movie that Michael Wincott – who always makes a strong impression – is cast as manager Paul Rothchild but can barely get a look in.

The Doors is conspicuous for Stone’s failure to broach the conspiratorial potential in the Morrison story. But then, when you glance at the subjects he’s covered where he omitted to follow up on the obvious – Pearl Harbour in The Secret History of the United States, 9/11 in World Trade Centre, Edward Snowden as a CIA plant in Snowden, a straight treatment of Dubya (W.), sympathy for the devil in Nixon – such that you’re left with the realisation the only time he really did go for the jugular was JFK. Which in turn leaves one wondering if, rather than an effective summary of the various threads assassination theorists have produced (minus the Gold Standard and UFO reveals), that film might have been an intentionally obfuscating psyop, designed to show the rabbit hole is too deep and labyrinthine to make interrogating it worthwhile (I actually think it’s a great movie, Stone’s best, but there’s good reason to be suspicious of his rebel cred).

Stone does, briefly, address the elephant in Morrison’s room, as Kennealy reveals she has done digging, and that “Your father’s an admiral in the United States Navy and was at the Gulf of Tonkin when the Vietnam War broke out”, that “Your dad’s Deputy Chief of Operations” and that Jim moved around a lot on army bases throughout his pop’s career, including Washington DC. Does she have his number? Is Stone dropping a subtle truth bomb? Cut to Morrison with his empty trance smile.

When Ray observes “Those are great fucking lyrics, man”, followed by “What the hell happened to you in the desert, Jim?”, is Stone alluding to a man who has a mystery in his background? “Let’s plan a murder or start a religion” suggests a loaded Morrison, the kind of thing a popular cult does, of the Manson or MK-influenced variety. “Have you ever eaten human flesh?” he is later asked. Was Jim Morrison MKUltra’d? Was he a willing party? Did he write the songs? Did the guy in Under the Silver Lake? Is The Doors charting the tale of a disintegrating MK’d stooge, such that Mimi Rogers appearing to manage him, like all good beards, is very meta-appropriate? Stone concludes the picture with the pointed phrasing that Morrison “is said” to have died of heart failure in 1971; did he die of something else? Is this an allusion to Pam’s responsibility, something he couldn’t say outright? Or is it a suggestion that Morrison didn’t in fact die at all?

Stone seems content to leave it at that – one is almost inclined towards surprise we even got that much – and yet the same guy who weaved such a tapestry of clandestine intrigue from the same year’s JFK was content to leave such an enormous “coincidence” dangling: the direct intersection of counterculture and establishment, of freedom and oppression, peace and war (inspired by, as David McGowan put it “an ‘attack’ that never took place at all”), the Hegelian dialectic.

In Weird Scenes Inside the Canyon, McGowan opens his overview with a photo of Morrison on the bridge of the USS Bon Homme Richard in January 1964. Jim was twenty, and in the same month, he moved to LA to attend UCLA – the alleged Gulf of Tonkin Incident that triggered the Vietnam War, obliquely referenced by Stone, occurred seven months later. Morrison and Manzarek formed the band about a year after, in the summer of 1965.

Yale dropout Stone, of course, has his own military connections. Yale graduate dad was on Eisenhower’s staff during WWII, and if Stone’s autobiography rehearses a tale in which he was in danger of not making it big, he’s nevertheless someone who lucked in – as such people do – at crucial moments, be it Marty Scorsese rating a student project or Robert Bolt getting him an agent (Stone has Jim Morrison quit, but the poet-guru-drunk actually graduated).

Morrison was one of earliest on Laurel Canyon/Sunset Strip scene, and he shared the milieu with others from military families. Frank’s wife Gail Zappa attended a naval kindergarten class with Jim, who later attended the same high school as John Philips and Cass Elliot, Laurel Canyon graduates all. Yes, you could say claiming your parents were dead was out of shame/disgust, but it’s also a fairly overpowering method of obfuscation.

McGowan notes the iconography of Jim’s death at 27, and how dad, who had also engaged in classified work at White Sands, was delivering a speech at the decommissioning of the same aircraft carrier at the centre of the incident on the very day Jim broke on through to the other side. He registers – as Stone did, albeit Stone rather revelled in it – Morrison’s occult affections, for Crowley, and interest in incest and sadism.

Most significant in McGowan’s mind is how Morrison “essentially arrived on the scene as a fully developed rock star, complete with a backing band, a stage persona and an impressive collection of songs – enough, in fact, to fill The Doors’ first few albums”. McGowan finds the reinvention curious – no interest in music hitherto, or singing, and most of his catalogue of songs composed in an acid-addled spell prior to forming the band. The other members lacked “any real band credentials” either. Paul Rothchild claimed they were pretty rubbish live performers (“they didn’t make it; there was too much inconsistency, there was too much bad music”).

Plus, there’s Jim’s “curious aversion to political advocacy” (hence all those Morrison songs about “little girls” and allusions to his dong). Was Stone simply providing a bookend to a psyop well-travelled? Who knows. What I remember most at the time of its release was a strong interest in the movie that soon subsided when it was revealed as largely underwhelming. There was nary a “You had to be there” vibe that might at least have given it some lustre. But then, ’60s nostalgia fests – see 1969 – weren’t going down well around then, unless they were Nam focussed.

Ray Manzarek: It’s great. It’s non-linear. It’s poetry. It’s everything good art stands for.

Up to this point, Oliver Stone’s career proper (as in, from Salvador on) had been largely well received, even if some had been less enamoured of Born on the Fourth of July and saw Wall Street as rather too earnest. It was with The Doors that the tide began to turn. JFK would be a brief reprieve, but that period where the director was garnering more clout, yet finding himself less genuinely fuelled and fired up, was to be his undoing. Natural Born Killers would deliver a risible caricature of the angry director. The Doors isn’t that, but rather like its singer, it’s a lost movie, enthralled by the idea of itself but forgetting to tell a core story with compelling characters.


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