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The Doors (1991)

June 29th, 2008 · 3 Comments

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Bearded, overweight and sipping whiskey, Jim Morrison (Val Kilmer) huddles in a studio in Paris, laying down a track of his poetry, alone. Moving back in time to Venice Beach, California in 1965, Morrison follows a woman who catches his eye back to her bungalow. He climbs in her window. “You got a problem with doors?” asks Pamela Courson (Meg Ryan). “Waste of time.” The sensitive, somewhat pretentious Morrison drops out of UCLA film school and spends his time with Pam, living on a roof and writing. He runs into a classmate, Ray Manzarek (Kyle MacLachlan) and samples some of the lyrics he’s been scribbling.

Arriving on the name Doors, guitarist Robby Krieger (Frank Whaley) and drummer John Densmore (Kevin Dillon) join keyboardist Mazarek and the charismatic Morrison in the band, which builds a following in L.A. performing songs like “Light My Fire” at clubs on the Sunset Strip. A trip to Death Valley to drop peyote culminates in The Doors performing “The End” to an entranced crowd at the Whisky à Go-Go. A recording deal with Elektra Records under the supervision of producer Paul Rothschild (Michael Wincott) follows, as does notoriety when Morrison gets the band banned from The Ed Sullivan Show for growling the word “higher” on live TV.

Morrison insulates himself from the pressures of fame with booze, and also occupies himself sexually with wicca obsessed journalist Patricia Kennealy (Kathleen Quinlan). Violating state obscenity laws at a show in New Haven, increasingly erratic behavior on stage and showing up drunk for recording sessions alienates Morrison from his band mates until they ultimately part company following the release of their last studio album, L.A. Woman in 1970. Morrison and his wife Pam head to Paris, where the enigmatic rocker has an encounter with destiny.


Production history
Oliver Stone was introduced to the music of The Doors in April 1967, “hooched down in a base camp in Vietnam.” He returned from the war and the first screenplay he ever attempted – Break – was so inspired by the band’s surreal imagery that Stone sent a copy to Jim Morrison, hoping he would star. Over the next twenty years, William Friedkin, Martin Scorsese, Francis Coppola, Brian DePalma, Paul Schrader, Walter Hill, Barry Levinson, and Ron Howard all tried to develop a feature film on Morrison. DePalma planned a fictionalized account along the lines of The Rose, with John Travolta agreeing to play a rock icon styled after Morrison.

After a series of protracted negotiations with Morrison’s estate and the members of The Doors, producer Sasha Harari, rock promoter Bill Graham and Columbia Pictures ended up with the film rights to The Doors in 1985. Harari’s first choice to write a script was Oliver Stone, who was departing for the Philippines to direct Platoon and never responded. Following two drafts – one by Ralph Thomas, another by J. Randall Jahnson – Columbia put the project into turnaround, where Brian Grazer and Imagine Entertainment picked it up.

Harari wasn’t happy with the scripts he was reading and persisted in getting Stone to come on board. But when the screenwriter met with The Doors, he failed to win the band over. Bob Dolman turned in the next draft and the project stalled. Eventually, Mario Kassar and Andrew Vajna agreed to bankroll The Doors through their studio Carolco Pictures. Vajna felt he had the perfect director to take over: Oliver Stone. Two Academy Awards later – for directing Platoon and Born On The Fourth of July – the band was much more receptive to the ideas Stone presented.


Stone agreed to helm The Doors after he finished his next picture, Evita. Meryl Streep was set to play Eva Peron in an adaptation of the stage musical, but was holding out for more money than the production could afford. When Streep dropped out, Stone moved immediately into The Doors, completing a first draft in the summer of 1989. “The script was written more as a tone poem. The concept was that the movie was all in Jim’s lyrics. I picked the songs I wanted and wrote each piece of the movie as a mood to fit that song … I tried not to put my rationalizations about motivations between us and the songs.”

Stone was thinking about Val Kilmer for Jim Morrison as early as 1987. “In Willow, he was not at all the classic Errol Flynn type, he’s more in the anti-hero mold. I liked his implied arrogance.” Kilmer wasn’t a fan of The Doors, at least not yet. He spent several thousand dollars to shoot a demo of himself performing four of the band’s songs in his home. Stone sent Kilmer to work with Paul Rothschild and had the actor lay down his own vocal tracks against The Doors’ master tapes. When the band heard the demo, they weren’t sure whether they were listening to Morrison or Kilmer.

With Carolco raising $38 million in financing, shooting commenced in April 1990. Stone refused to film Kilmer lip synching his way through the club or concert scenes and instead recorded the actor singing live, with The Doors master tapes playing behind him. Stone’s insistence to make a movie about the music culminated with 30,000 extras showing up for the concert sequences. Stone recalls, “There was a lotta acid going around, a lotta marijuana. They were stripping clothes off, unasked, just to participate. They loved the music and wanted to get back to that time. The concert scenes probably looked better than the real ‘60s concerts did.”


Arriving in theaters March 1991, moviegoers and critics either loved The Doors or hated it. Ray Manzarek assailed Stone’s vision, which he referred to as “the evil side of sex and drugs.” Rolling Stone called the film “the King Kong of rock movies.” The Washington Post headline read, “Doors: The Time To Hesitate Is Now,” but Gene Siskel called it a “vibrant tribute to rock cult figure Jim Morrison and the decade in which he flourished.” The film grossed a modest $37 million in the U.S. and $25 million overseas. Most people found it on home video instead of seeing it on the big screen with a crowd.


The film does increase in power the larger canvas it plays on -and the higher volume it’s jacked up to – but whatever sized screen you’re watching it on, The Doors holds up as one of the greatest rock ‘n roll movies of all time. Stone doesn’t provide much insight into the enigma of Jim Morrison, and the movie tells us even less about his music. Character study is not what it’s going for. Instead, the film endures as an experience, a triumph of sight and sound featuring twenty-seven of The Doors’ songs married to some of the most astounding camerawork and mind blowing optical effects ever put to film.

Even the most tight collared Stone hater would have to admit that the movie looks and sounds like platinum, a credit to cinematographer Robert Richardson and music producer Paul Rothschild. The scope that went into recreating the ‘60s – from the Sunset Strip to the concert scenes – is awesome, even as the film staggers around for a story, or Meg Ryan is cast completely out of her element. By bringing in Crispin Glover to appear as Andy Warhol, Mimi Rogers as photographer Gloria Stavers and Michael Madsen as Tom Baker, not to mention Val Kilmer putting on the show of his career, there’s not a dull moment to be found here.


Eamonn McCusker at DVD Times writes, “Overall, it’s a good film but not quite the biopic it could have been. Most fans of Morrison and The Doors will admit that the legend of the Lizard King is something that has overshadowed the music for over thirty-one years but in revisiting this film and rereading the Jerry Hopkins/Danny Sugerman biography, maybe Stone is right, maybe Morrison actually was really dislikeable and maybe it’s necessary to separate the Morrison from his music – great albums, awful man.”

“It doesn’t take much experience in the way of mind-altering substances to know a bad trip when you see one, and Oliver Stone’s The Doors plays out like an epic hangover one expects to never recover from. The film is overwhelming in all the wrong ways, and while, theoretically, such an assaulting effect would seem the correct one for a film detailing the perpetually overindulgent life of rock god Jim Morrison … the effect remains one of unrestrained, unpleasant bombast, attacking the mind as opposed to tingling the subconscious,” writes Rob Humanick at The Projection Booth.

Preston Jones at DVD Talk writes, “Much has been made of Stone’s synthesis of fact and fiction, a blend that fused the myths and the men who made them, resulting in an intoxicating cinematic experience, one charged with the mind-expanding possibilities of psychotropics and poetry, smashed together in splendid fashion. Val Kilmer doesn’t perform so much as inhabit the soul of Jim Morrison … It’s a searing performance that’s justly been celebrated as perhaps the crowning achievement of Kilmer’s erratic career.”

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Bathtub scene · Concert · Dreams and visions · Drunk scene · Famous line · Music

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 sir jorge // Jun 30, 2008 at 10:03 am

    it’s been a while since i’ve seen this one, i have to revisit it now.

  • 2 Mrs. Thuro's Mom // Jul 7, 2008 at 8:51 pm

    I’m not a big fan of Jim Morrison or the Doors (they honestly are a little before my time), but I found the movie interesting. Definitely some of Val Kilmer’s finest work.

  • 3 cindytincher // May 9, 2009 at 12:29 pm

    myhusband was a big fan, of the doors, he die a year, ago just like, jim Morrison. I watch the movie to go to sleep.53and he gone. I live for that movie.

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