If Jim Morrison hadn’t been born, Oliver Stone would’ve had to invent him. Morrison, the notorious lead singer and lyricist of the short-lived ’60s band The Doors (he died in 1971, and the band more or less died with him), is the perfect subject for Stone, a Doors fan whose movies (Born on the Fourth of July, Platoon, Salvador, and so on) all focus on frazzled, fucked-up antiheroes. Stone’s film about Morrison, The Doors, gives him the chance to delve into the psycho-psychedelic imagery he could only touch on in his earlier work. Much of the movie is ridiculous: Stone has never known restraint. But it’s also enjoyable in a jittery, hyperbolic way, and parts of it are undeniably moving.
Though the credits name no single source used for the film, the script (by Stone and J. Randal Johnson) seems to lean heavily on the anecdotes in the 1980 Morrison biography No One Here Gets Out Alive, by Jerry Hopkins and Danny Sugerman. Like that book, The Doors has a mournful tone, an ache of regret about a rock god who got trapped in his own mystical, self-destructive obsessions and wound up bloated and dead in a bathtub.
The saddest thing about Morrison is that, at the end, he had become a ’60s cliché like Jimi and Janis (he used to say to people, “You’re drinking with number three”), just another casualty of the era of excess. A ferociously inventive and literate performer, Morrison had an aura of dangerous energy fueled by sex and death, and it consumed him, though it was what his fans responded to. He was larger than life, and you can hear it in the songs — even a rinky-dink number like “Love Street” plays like a mini-epic. He was definitely getting at something; as with Kurt Cobain, though, it’s hard to know how Morrison would’ve evolved as an artist had he lived past his twenties. Some artists genuinely don’t seem built to last.
In The Doors, Morrison (Val Kilmer) is presented as a rebel who smirks at authority and alienates everyone around him, but, except for a couple of shots of the books he reads (Mailer, Kerouac, Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell), the film doesn’t give us a sense of his other, mitigating side — the rock idol as poet/philosopher. Val Kilmer is an uncanny ringer for Morrison and turns in a vivid, fiery performance, but Stone allows him very few moments of peace. (He’s quiet only when he’s stoned.) So we leave with an excellent idea of what a maniacal prick Morrison was, but no idea why his lover Pamela (Meg Ryan) or his bandmates — keyboardist Ray Manzarek (Kyle MacLachlan), drummer John Densmore (Kevin Dillon), guitarist Robby Krieger (Frank Whaley) — put up with him.
Stone only has eyes for Morrison, but the supporting players provide some variety and work wonders. They have to do it in the background, though. Of all the cast members (and it’s a huge cast), I responded most readily to MacLachlan, who, as the bespectacled, hippy-dippy Manzarek, is like a shaggy version of his Agent Cooper on Twin Peaks, and also to Meg Ryan, whose Pamela is a walking wound — she’s looking for a daddy, and the Lizard King sure isn’t him. There are a few surprises from Kevin Dillon, who manages to get away from his sneering-punk persona. He’s amusing much of the time. Most of the laughs, though, come from the theater veteran Michael Wincott (he was the stoned rock star Kent in Stone’s Talk Radio) as Doors producer Paul Rothchild. He’s so funny when he’s bitching at Morrison for being too drunk to cut a song that he steals every scene he’s in, and adds much-needed relief to an often somber movie.
In the ’60s nightclub scenes, Stone goes all out — he’s in his element. Shot very close in, with the camera wobbling as if mounted on a waterbed, these sequences are visually dense; everywhere you look, there’s a familiar face. Billy Idol shows up, on crutches, as a groupie named Cat, and lots of other stars and musicians pop in: Eric Burden, Billy Vera, Mimi Rogers, Crispin Glover (as bizarre as ever) as Andy Warhol, Paul Williams as a Warhol hanger-on, Stone himself (bearded) as a film professor at UCLA, where Morrison made avant-garde movies. Stone also recruits a few figures from Morrison’s life: Patricia Kennealy (played here by Kathleen Quinlan), whom Morrison impregnated and drank blood with, appears as a priestess in one of Morrison’s many hallucinations; Densmore and Krieger serve as musical consultants. The movie feels like an uneasy testament made to Morrison by those who loved him.
The druggy craziness of Morrison’s milieu isn’t particularly glorified. The audience is cued to giggle at the stoned blatherings of Morrison and the band when they’re tripping on acid in the desert, and Pamela pukes on Morrison’s shirt. (It’s similar to the peyote episode in Young Guns.) Stone walks a cautious line here: we recognize that the drugs and booze enabled Morrison to write such stuff as “The End” and “Riders on the Storm,” but we also see that the price of this drug-induced creativity is monstrously high. Stone doesn’t preach; he doesn’t have it in him. (He came back from Vietnam with a troublesome drug addiction.) But he doesn’t candy-coat the material.
When Morrison, whacked out of his skull at a college gig in Miami, spits a few obscenities at the phalanx of guards surrounding him onstage and then begins slowly, seductively, to strip (leading to his arrest for indecent exposure), we see him through the eyes of the other Doors members, who seem to be thinking “Oh, God, not again.” And when, at a Thanksgiving party Pamela is hosting, he throws the duck she has cooked onto the floor and stomps on it, we see him through her eyes — the ultimate wild-card husband. Morrison is an outsider to the band and to Pamela; he’s an outsider to himself, and certainly to us. Yet he has our sympathy, because when we see Morrison through the lens of his intimates, we share their feelings: anger, yes, embarrassment, sure, but mostly unspeakable sadness. The Doors paints a laceratingly clear picture of talent eating itself.