Oliver Stone is no stranger to courting controversy over the historical accuracy of his movies. His political biopics, Nixon and W., as well as his labour of love JFK, all offer their own tweaked and dramatized interpretation of the truth. With The Doors, out now on Blu-Ray to mark its 20 year anniversary, Stone again treads the fine line between history and myth. While the director may argue that he is simply offering one interpretation of a story and in doing so seeking to provoke debate, his critics would argue that he presents conjecture as fact and unfairly twists the truth to suit his dramatic needs.
The three surviving members of the Doors, Ray Manzarek, Robby Krieger and John Densmore have famously objected to Stone’s portrayal of their band and especially of their iconic front man Jim Morrison. Manzarek in particular has dismissed the movie as a gross misinterpretation of Morrison’s character as Stone focused only on his worst destructive tendencies and ignored the soulful and funny side to the ‘Lizard King’.
You could go back and forth for days with the ‘film as historical truth’ argument, and to do it justice would take up more room than we have available here. Putting the question of accuracy aside for now however, if we choose to judge The Doors purely on it’s cinematic merits, what we have is a captivating and visually striking film that does however possess some noticeable flaws.
From the outset, Stone wastes little time in launching us into the psychedelic swinging sixties. There is a brief scene at the start of the film where a young Jim is in his family car and witnesses the aftermath of a road crash that leaves a Native American dying by the roadside, but that’s about it in terms of background history. We first meet the awkwardly handsome Morrison at a time when he was a laid back beach bum on LA’s Venice Beach. After dropping out of Film School when one of his student films is roundly ridiculed by his classmates, Morrison channels his energies into writing lyrics. Fellow student Ray Manzarek, played here by Kyle Maclachlan, encourages his friend to start a band and get his poetry heard. Their newly formed group, The Doors, prove a big hit on the local scene and they are soon wowing audiences at the infamous Whisky A Go-Go on the Sunset Strip.
What follows is an extravagant romp through the band’s rise to superstardom via a blur of drug-fuelled parties and hysteria-inducing live performances. Throughout the film though, the focus remains squarely on the enigmatic Morrison.
Portraying one of the most memorable front men of all time is unquestionably a daunting task, but Val Kilmer provides a career best performance as the late Morrison, with an uncanny physical resemblance and an impressive vocal impersonation to boot. Much of the on-stage vocal performances were done live by Kilmer and supposedly the rest of The Doors themselves had trouble differentiating between Morrison’s vocals and Kilmer’s. Kilmer captures the two sides to Morrison perfectly, the troubled, soulful poet on the one hand, and the selfish, egotistical rock god on the other. As Morrison slips further into a spiral of drink and drugs and his grip on reality gets looser still, Kilmer comes into his own, throwing himself into the role and revelling in the hedonistic excess of Oliver Stone’s sixties.
Whilst the accuracy of certain events may well be questioned, you have to hand Stone credit for creating a great sense of time and place and capturing the zeitgeist of the era extremely well. The decadent excess may be exaggerated for dramatic effect, but the portrayal of the rise of a burgeoning counter culture is extremely well crafted. Naturally an integral part of this ambiance was the music itself, and The Door’s tracks sound superb throughout. ‘Light my fire’, ‘Riders on the Storm’ and the enigmatic ‘The End’, are pitch perfect in their usage and stay in your head long after the movie has finished.
The film is not without its flaws however. As it progresses, the endless cycle of Morrison’s binging, his resultant flirtations with death and the damage this all does to his band mates and loved ones, does get a little bit stale. There are only so many times you can see him swig from a bottle, say something faux-poetic and then attempt to have sex with a nearby female.
As engaging and impressive as Kilmer is, it does little to change the fairly unappealing nature of Morrison’s character. He soon begins to believe his own hype and the adulation of his adoring fans merely acts as a catalyst feeding both his delusions of grandeur and his destructive nature. Morrison’s obsession with death and ‘the end’ gradually escalates, as does his taste for booze and drugs. Fame goes to his head and ultimately he becomes an unbearable hedonist who cares nothing for his friends and even less for himself. Few of the other characters have any real development in Stone’s picture, they are all merely minor players in the Jim Morrison story, walking in the background and dwarfed by his iconic presence. Consequentially, we feel no connection at all to the rest of the cast and all our focus is forced squarely upon the frustrating figure of Morrison. As his dangerous mix of narcissism and self-loathing comes to a head, it’s hard to feel any real sympathy towards him by the film’s end.
The Doors is an engaging take on the story one of the most influential American bands of all times, but it just somehow falls a little short of reaching its potential. Kilmer puts in a tremendous performance and the period setting is aesthetically impressive, but there isn’t really enough story to justify the run time. There’s little in the way of plot or character development, it’s just one man’s mission to self destruct and as iconic as that man may be, it can get a bit repetitive after a few hours. That being said, there’s still a lot to enjoy in Stone’s film, and its well worth a re-visit after two decades.
The Doors is out on blu-ray 18th April 2011.
Director: Oliver Stone
Stars:Val Kilmer, Meg Ryan, Kyle MacLachlan
Runtime: 140 min