Looking Back At THE DOORS - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Looking Back At THE DOORS

Martin Rayburn breaks on through to the other side.
As a lover of all things Rock; from the Beatles, Led Zep, the Who, Guns and Roses and beyond, one of the bands I find most intriguing and complex to listen to is the Doors. They were around only for a short time, however despite their drug fueled lives and the era in which they lived them, they managed to record six studio albums in just four years and all of them are pretty damn good. Now this was before my time as their prolific period ended when I was just a few years old. Of course, I knew the hits but I discovered a deeper appreciation for their back catalogue in the large part thanks to Oliver Stone and his 1991 biopic. A film which although admirably captures the era and the music, can feel as chaotic to watch as the group itself. Yet it's one I still often revisit time and again.

Stone clearly has a thing for the 1960s, and after winning two best director Academy Awards (Born on the Fourth of July, and Platoon respectively) he could pretty much film whatever he wanted, and so set about bringing his youth obsessions to the screen with both JFK and The Doors. And both are pretty much prime examples of what happens when a filmmaker can do what they want. With The Doors, especially, the vision of what's on screen is entirely Stone's, devoid of any studio interference and not necessarily what the remaining members of the Doors themselves had intended. That, in itself, is an achievement.
The Doors chronicles the years 1965 to 1971 as we see the band going from heralded beginnings (guitarist Robbie Kreiger and Morrison were students who met at UCLA film school) to stardom, and then to an eventual break up with the lead vocalist. In reality, the drummer, keyboard player, and lead guitarist continued on but the film ends with Jim Morrison's death. Stone veers almost completely away from the storytelling of the band and instead concentrates on the madness and mystery of Morrison's life during this period, cobbled together from stories told and event's witnessed by others, with an amalgamation of characters mashed-up into a supporting cast of varying performances.

In an act of perfect miracle casting, Val Kilmer's performance as Morrison is easily the finest of his career. Raw, nervy, deliberately off-putting and confrontational, moments of sobriety are few are far between for this insecure genius. From threatening suicide repeatedly to quarreling constantly with police at concerts, scenes of bad behavior are many but moments of insight are few and far between. This doesn't seem a shortcoming on behalf of director Stone so much as an accurate depiction of the highly acidic public face of Morrison as he truly was during this era. Morrison was an artist on the constant edge of oblivion. From alcohol induced nervous breakdown to drug fueled indecent exposure, Kilmer abandons all instinct for self preservation and submerges himself into the character of a man whose life was tragically cut short at just 27 from heart failure.
Despite the sometimes disjointed editing and stylistic choices, spiritual journey flashbacks and psychedelic hallucinogenic visions, Stone more than succeeds in showing us both Morrison's talent, driving force and alienation from the other band members of the Doors through his relentless substamce abuse. He also shows Morrison's relationship with his longtime lover and common-law wife Pamela, played by Meg Ryan. Ryan seems lost in the role and is an odd casting choice, but to be fair to her she doesn't have that much screen-time to own the part because, as previously mentioned, this is Morrison's story and he was a firm supporter of the "free love" social movement. Indeed, Stone shows him here spending more time with journalist and witchcraft enthusiast Patricia Kennealy (Kathleen Quinlan), who although a real person is used to represent an amalgam of several Morrison lovers that suffered through his frequent alcohol and drug induced impotence.

Much of the rest of the cast, including Kevin Dillon as John Densmore, Kyle MacLachlan as Ray Manzarek, Frank Whaley as Robbie Krieger - the other three members of the Doors - and the very talented Michael Madsen, suffer the same fate as Ryan, in that they are grossly underdeveloped and exist solely to weave in and out of the next vignette in Morrison's troubled life. That's not to say they are not worthy of praise, they just aren't given anything that memorable to work with. In fact, the only actor who stands-out despite Kilmer is that of Crispin Glover who has a cameo as Andy Warhol in a scene that is absolutely spellbinding, if somewhat stereotypical.
As Oscar worthy as Kilmer is as Morrison (I'm still amazed he wasn't even nominated), The Doors isn't in anyway an easy watch, but it's saving grace is the music. Not only that, the concert and studio recording scenes are so well filmed and seem so real that you get the sense that Stone really took his time to get the right attention to detail here. From the notorious Ed Sullivan Show appearance to the film's climactic scene of the infamous concert at the Dinner Key Auditorium in Miami, the set-design, look and atmosphere is absolutely spot-on, even if Stone does take some liberties with the facts that occurred during these instances. When the musical performances are in full effect, it's sometimes possible to forget this isn't a documentary comprised of archive footage, and adding further realism, plus in another string to his talented bow, Kilmer performs the vocals admirably well too. You'd be hard pushed to tell it's not Morrison's voice most of the time. I believe the other actors representing the band members actually learned to play their instruments as well. This was solely for added realism as Kilmer's vocals are mixed with the original recordings by the Doors themselves.

After the film's release the surviving members of the Doors weren't exactly complimentary about it, but as I recall Oliver Stone saying in interviews at the time, "when you have to condense a person's life, a legend at that, into two measly hours you must take the highlights. Everyone lives longer than two hours, even Jim", and it's hard to argue against that. Even if you're just portraying a short period of someone's life, something's gotta give and liberties have to be taken. Artistic license, if you will. This is Oliver Stone's The Doors, and I think his intentions came from a place of true admiration, even if the on-screen Morrison doesn't necessarily tally with the one known by Manzarek, Krieger, and Densmore. If nothing else, Stone prompted the world to either revisit or discover anew the group's music, as he did me.
Despite the film being a artistic liberty-sprinkled potted-history of the troubled frontman's most prolific period, The Doors is unlikely to make you a fan of the man or even overly sympathetic to Jim Morrison himself. However it might, like me, make you a fan of the band's music, and that is a legacy worth discovering. 30 years on from its release, you'll come back to The Doors time and again for that music, and every one of those times you'll find yourself in awe at Val Kilmer's magnum opus of a performance. The Doors, then, is a fiery yet saturated, powerful yet overwhelming, and sad yet involving portrait of a musical icon who passed away much too early.

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