(UN)POPULAR CULTURE

The home of writer & author A. J. BLACK

Oliver Stone manages to capture in The Doors precisely what made the band so compelling – pretentiousness and brilliance all wrapped into one.

There was a level of kismet in how Stone came to detailing the life story of Jim Morrison, the tragic lead singer of the eponymous band. An aspiring filmmaker at the tail end of the 1960’s, Stone missed out on the excessive West Coast counter-culture revolution that the Doors helped fuel, split as he was between serving in Vietnam and living in New York, but he wrote a script which he sent to Morrison—looking to move away from the group that defined him into filmmaking—which tapped into that aesthetic. When he started developing The Doors twenty years later, Stone discovered that Morrison had his script in the Paris apartment where he was found dead in 1971 of heart failure. A sign of filmmaker destiny? Perhaps.

Stone certainly feels like the kind of director who fits the material, given he had built a career before the 1990’s on pictures which depicted the darker side of America’s post-war boom culture, specifically the Vietnam War in films such as Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July. Stone understands that the late 60’s saw the death of something cultural and this is very much reflected in the life, career and ultimately demise of Morrison, around whom the film pivots. Without Morrison, there is no The Doors, much like without the front man there was no band, or at least not the same unique, trippy, rock-fuelled quintessence of the Doors at their height. The Doors understands this and Stone wraps his film around Morrison’s languorous, drug-induced egotism.

You can see why The Doors might divide. It’s a film full of life, full of music, full of colour and dappled sun, yet it is surrounded and subsumed by the somber pallor of death and tragedy.

1991 turned out to be a boom year for Oliver Stone. The Doors dropped in the spring and by the end of the year, his arguable masterpiece JFK defined the beginning of the 60’s in a manner The Doors defines the end.

To a degree, they speak to similar interests on Stone’s behalf, even while they exist in entirely different worlds. Both centralise a cultural moment around the spectre of death. JFK investigates the conspiratorial ripple effect of the infamous Presidential assassination while The Doors brings you into the steady self-destruction of a musical icon, a defining totem of a social revolution.

If JFK’s murder signalled a change in American security, Jim Morrison’s death—in the same few years as other famous young demises in the musical world such as Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, all unusually at the age of 27—marked the end of the 60’s and what it stood for. The 70’s would be characterised by social and literal depression, fuelled by a loss of hope in institutions such as the Nixon administration or after Vietnam, and Morrison succumbing to the extremes of his world served as a bellweather. Stone works hard to communicate these deep seated aspects and is successful.

To fully engage with the material, you have to accept that Jim Morrison had a special alchemy about his talent, a Coriolis force of sexual and psychological magnetism, while being totally and utterly consumed by his own hype. He burns bright and flames out within half a decade. Compare that to Mick Jagger—a contemporary—still out there touring close to 80 years old in the same band after over half a century. Morrison, Hendrix, Joplin – they self-destructed. Their brilliance, and their belief in that brilliance, caused their implosion, and Stone’s film visually conveys the languid sessions and psychotropic quests Morrison, and the Doors themselves, undertook to effect their mission statement, built into the band’s name – to open the doors of perception and find a new plane. They were the ultimate psychedelic crusaders.

It helps that Val Kilmer not only is a spooky lookalike for Morrison, he also fully imbues the possessed, and self-possessed, gravity of a man working to live up to genius. It could be the performance of Kilmer’s career. He becomes Jim Morrison in a way few actors encapsulate a real life icon. This is a major boon to Stone, who could have struggled to make the script and Morrison’s journey work without a central performance which completely encompasses the scope of the broader social, political and spiritual themes driving the narrative.

We’re not supposed to love, or even necessarily like Morrison all the way through; he betrays people, he’s unfaithful, he’s an extreme drug addict, he has little empathy or awareness for the rest of the Doors cruising in his slipstream, but he is consistently magnetic. There is a presence around him, one which significantly captures Meg Ryan’s lovelorn groupie/girlfriend Pamela Courson, whose romance with Morrison forms a backbone to his journey.

What sets The Doors apart, however, is that Stone isn’t much interested in the technicalities of the Doors success or failure. He chronicles their creation, and by tethering their songs to Morrison’s journey he provides a clear road-map for the significance of their strange, often circular but frequently transcendent music – you can see, indeed, how much the recent Elton John biopic Rocketman took a cue, even unknowingly, from this. Yet Stone is thinking bigger.

The Doors is charting the decay of an era through the psychological trauma and dark obsession of a young man who came from little America with nothing and coasted into a life he was totally unprepared for, obsessed following the youthful witnessing of a roadside crash, and the slow death of a Navajo Indian, with the idea of dying. Morrison seems to rush headlong to the grave in Stone’s film.

Indeed, one could read this significant symbolic aspect to The Doors as a deep seated American guilt at the treatment of the Native American; young Jim watches the old, sage Navajo die having been ran down by a white collar American in the desert, and witnesses another symbolic example of the white man’s destruction of an ancient, native creed. Is Morrison haunted by the Indian as America is haunted by its own dark, destructive history? Perhaps.

In Stone’s hands, a man keenly obsessed with unpicking the cultural and political scabs of American life and history, this seems like an apt metaphor. Morrison imbues the nihilistic, entitled recklessness of a post-1945 generation who made love, not war, only to find drugs particularly would allow them no need of an external enemy. We could destroy ourselves. 

The Doors is a heady biopic of the late 60’s as much as the band in question, soaked in hazy Californian sunlight and riven with psychedelic tunes that age ever more like a fine wine, but there is little doubt this is Oliver Stone’s elegy to a paradise that could never have lasted, and Jim Morrison as a Jesus doomed to die young.

★★★★☆

BONUS MATERIAL

StudioCanal have released what could be a comprehensive release of The Doors here, which includes:

  • The Doors – The Final Cut.
  • The Doors – The original theatrical version.
  • Oliver Stone Audio Commentary.               
  • New extra: Interview with Oliver Stone.
  • New extra: Interview with Lon Bender, mixer for new Dolby Atmos mix.
  • Deleted scenes – introduced by O. Stone and then included in full with the script section as Chapter heading.
  • “Jim Morrison: A Poet in Paris” – a documentary in French looking at the last few months of Jim Morrison’s life in Paris, and his death.  
  • “The Road to Excess” – a documentary looking at how the movie came to be made, including interviews with the real-life Doors and main characters (except Ray Manzarek).
  • “The Doors in LA” – a documentary looking at the formation and rise of THE DOORS in LA in second of half of the 1960s with the Vietnam War and hippy culture as their backdrop.      
  • EPK – includes behind the scenes featurette, profiles, music video, original trailer.
  • Feature length The Doors documentary narrated by Johnny Depp. (only on Special Edition).

★★★★★

The Doors is now available on 4k & BluRay from StudioCanal.

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