There’s a level of fate in how Oliver Stone came to depict the origins of The Doors. His connection to their music began in 1967 when he first heard “Roadhouse Blues” while serving in Vietnam. Following his tour overseas, the aspiring filmmaker wrote a semi-autobiographical screenplay detailing his experiences of the war. Originally entitled Break, Stone sent the script to Jim Morrison, hoping he’d play the lead. Unfortunately, Break wasn’t produced but it was eventually adapted and became the premise for Stone’s Academy Award-winning film Platoon (1986). 20 later when Stone began developing a script for The Doors, he discovered Morrison had been reading the Break script in his Paris apartment where he was found dead in 1971.
Although Brian De Palma (Scarface), Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver), and William Friedkin (Sorcerer) all expressed interest in directing The Doors, Stone was the perfect choice. The director had built a career before the 1990s depicting the darker side of America’s post-war culture with Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July (1988). Stone understands how the ‘Summer of Love’ saw the death of something cultural and this is reflected in the life of Morrison. The Doors is full of life, music, and colour, yet enveloped by the somber milieu of death and tragedy. Stone uses The Doors almost as a cipher as the death of the hippie dream.
After Jim Morrison (Val Kilmer) arrives in California, he slowly begins to embrace ’60s counterculture. After quitting film school he meets Ray Manzarek (Kyle MacLachlan) and forms the rock band The Doors, and following a psychedelic experience in the Californian desert, they begin to perform in Los Angeles and become a sensation. As the fame of The Doors increases, Morrison starts abandoning his musical responsibilities and his girlfriend, Pamela (Meg Ryan), in favour of his dangerous addicts. Meanwhile, the band grows weary of their lead singe’s missed recording sessions and absence at concerts. As Morrison’s excessing lifestyle begins to spiral out of control, he alienates his friends before meeting an untimely end.
Although The Doors is an examination of the band during the height of their success, taking centre stage is Val Kilmer (Heat) as Jim Morrison. As the unconventional poetic genius, Kilmer’s performance is utterly infectious. A year prior to filming, the actor dressed like Morrison, listened to his music, and painstakingly studied various interviews to truly encapsulate the charismatic frontman (his dialogue mainly consists of philosophical phrases and poetry originating from the singer himself). While Kilmer’s physical appearance is remarkable and his energetic stage performance and live show antics are indistinguishable, the highlight is Kilmer’s voice. Similar to Sam Riley’s performance in Control (2007), the actor’s own vocals were dubbed over The Doors’ original master tapes. Although this was a controversial decision for fans, the band admitted they were unable to differentiate it from Morrison’s voice. Admittedly, Kilmer’s voice tone is deeper but he does an incredible imitation and the results are almost identical. He gives mesmerising renditions of hits including “Break on Through”, “Touch Me”, “The End”, and many more. It’s arguably one of Kilmer’s best performances and he truly encapsulates ‘The American Poet’.
The supporting characters are equally noteworthy and resemble their real-life counterparts both facially and in mannerisms. Coming straight from the set of Blue Velvet (1986), Kyle MacLachlan plays The Doors’ legendary organist Ray Manzarek, the voice of conscience for the band, constantly reasoning and seeing the bigger picture. MacLachlan imbues his character with an earnest sympathy who is desperate to save his struggling friend. Frank Whaley (Broken Arrow) plays unique lead guitarist Robby Krieger, capturing his genius blend of melancholic blues and Spanish guitar riffs with bursts of energy. And Matt Dillon’s younger brother, Kevin Dillon (Platoon), portrays jazz percussionist John Densmore, whose energetic drumming is incredible.
Additionally, Meg Ryan deserves plaudits for her portrayal as Morrison’s long-term love interest Pamela Courson. In a role that almost went to Patricia Arquette (True Romance), Ryan deviates from her usual romantic comedies of the period. Unfortunately, due to Courson’s parents owning several rights to Morrison’s poetry, Pamela’s role seems diminished from the rebellious spirit she was. During pre-production Stone found her parents to be difficult to work with because they wanted Pamela to be “portrayed as an angel.” Regardless, Ryan’s presence is mesmerising as she embodies the free-spirited flower child caught in Morrison’s whirlwind of promiscuity. The actress certainly looks like the ‘Twentieth Century Fox’ Morrison celebrated, and The Doors allowed the actress to prove she could play darker characters, which led to Flesh and Bone (1993) and In the Cut (2003).
To completely tell the story of how The Doors formed and sold millions of albums in 140-minutes is extremely ambitious. Co-writers Oliver Stone and Randall Johnson (The Mask of Zorro) keep the narrative straightforward, only focussing on key events. A lesser biopic would dwell on various record-breaking concerts, glorious moments performing their hit song, and contract disputes. However, Stone’s semi-fictionalised script pivots around 150 transcripts he read detailing the life and character of Morrison. The conventional scenes are appropriately placed, including the songwriting process of their biggest song “Light My Fire”. Along with the band’s first gig at a small venue on the Sunset Strip called London Fog, we quickly segue to The Doors performing the Oedipal nightmare “The End” that catapulted them into the spotlight. Admittedly, Stone leaves several questions unanswered, such as why they employed an organist instead of a bassist. However, the crystal-clear narrative focuses on the band’s rise to fame before Morrison’s inevitable demise.
While Stone delivers a relatively straightforward narrative, The Doors truly excels when it leans into moments of surreality. The cinematography from the director’s long-term collaborator Robert Richardson (Once Upon a Time Hollywood) contains a similar visual flair as Natural Born Killers (1994). The psychedelic sequences and dynamic editing patterns create a hallucinatory tableau of Morrison living in a “prolonged derangement of the senses.” During the most memorable sequence, the band takes hallucinogenics under the scorching sun in the vistas of Death Valley. Richardson employs several beautiful inventive scenes including the vivid blue sky slowly becoming populated by fragmented clouds, along with an animated time-lapse of the shadows creeping up rock formations. The kaleidoscopic visualisation, saturated colours, and dreamlike transitions truly capture the minds-eye of Morrison’s psyche. While not as aggressive as Natural Born Killers, it’s the precursor of the director’s experimental phase, exploring techniques with colours, exposures, and film stock that stretched the boundaries of filmmaking.
The Doors truly comes alive during the band’s live performances because Stone genuinely captures the atmosphere and vitality of a concert. A rarity even in music documentaries such as Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock (1970), the concerts are glorious events. The theatrical lighting and dynamic camera movements showcase Richardson’s keen eye for creating magic. As the shows progress, the atmosphere becomes electric and there’s a genuine sense of connection to the band. This is especially evident during the outdoor performance in San Francisco, as Morrison whips the audience into a frenzy screaming the lyrics to “Not to Touch the Earth”. Bathed in hellish red light, there’s a wonderful moment when the frontman dances on stage, channeling his Native American Indian spirit. As he loses himself in the music, the spectators replicate his dance around an open fire. Similar to Floria Sigismondi’s underrated The Runaways (2010), the imagery is palpable and truly heightens the energy of the atmosphere. Interestingly, Scorsese has since used the cinematographer for several projects including the Rolling Stone’s documentary Shine a Light (2008).
Following its release, The Doors triggered a predictable stream of criticism towards the director and his representation of Morrison. Perhaps the most vocal was the co-founder of the band, Ray Manzarek. In his 1998 memoir Light My Fire: My Life with The Doors, he states “the film portrays Jim as a violent, drunken fool. All you see is Jim as a drunken hedonist. He was intelligent. He was loving. He was a good man.” Admittedly, one should look at The Doors much like Stone’s subsequence feature JFK (1991). Stone’s preoccupation with sensationalism results in several fictitious scenes that perfectly capture the mystique of the band. During their live performance on Ed Sullivan, they were asked to replace the word “higher” in the song “Light My Fire”. Morrison chose to sing the original lyrics nonchalantly, much to the chagrin of the show’s producers. However, Stone’s fabricated performance depicts Morrison contemptuously sneering the word at the camera. Although the director’s version of events may not be true, it’s arguably more entertaining and feels like something the frontman would do. Stone’s representation of Morrison’s dislike for authority, wild indulgences, and brilliant performances capture the essence of The Doors.
The superficial treatment of Morrison feels somewhat deliberate as he’s used to reflect the manipulative power of the media. Admittedly, Stone walks a cautious line depicting the singer’s vices and terrible antics. He recognises that drugs and alcohol enabled Morrison to write hits including “The End” and “Riders of the Storm”, while also highlighting the disastrous consequences of his drug-induced creativity. However, despite his affection for the frontman, the director neither defends nor chastises his actions. Instead, he places the audience into the mind of Morrison, so we can see the world from his perspective. Similar to Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain, he was an artist representing a generation trying to escape a tumultuous world. Stone attempts to explore both sides of the singer: the enigmatic persona and the sensitive man drowning in fame, drugs, and alcohol. This is hinted at during the famous photoshoot that’s since become immortalised on posters and in rock magazines. He begins to believe his image as the photographer says “You’re the one they want. You are The Doors.” It’s during this scene that Morrison is no longer an artist or a poet, but a commodity. Once we see the negative influence of the media taking over his life, it’s the only way we can truly sympathise with him.
Stone makes the most of a $38M budget and recreates a jaw-dropping resurrection of 1960s Los Angeles. The locations are carefully crafted to evoke a distinctive time and place that echo both reality and unreality. The counterculture movement is captured beautifully, the fashion is authentic and the music is hypnotic. Barbara Ling’s (Batman Forever) wonderful production design illuminates the burgeoning ’60s psychedelia of the West Coast. The sidewalks of Venice Beach are congested with beatniks and hippies reciting poetry to passersby, while the iconic Whiskey a Go-Go is littered with time-appropriate posters for bands including The Beach Boys, The Byrds, and Love. The highlight is a brief scene when the band attends a party at Andy Warhol’s (Crispin Glover) The Factory. Fully decorated with tinfoil, broken mirrors, and avant-garde artwork, it’s overflowing with eccentric characters competing for Morrison’s attention. As Manzarek says before he leaves the party “These people are like vampires”. It’s no surprise that Richardson and Ling would later recreate the era with Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2018).
The success of The Doors depends on one’s enjoyment of their music. As a fan of the band and ’60s counterculture, Stone’s rock biopic strikes all the right chords. The melodies and lyrics represent the feelings, emotions, and desires of the decade. The director understands this and seeks to create the same feeling within the film. Kilmer plays Morrison with a similar Method edge as Marlon Brando (Apocalypse Now) and delivers an Oscar-worthy performance. Kilmer is fascinating, captivating, and mysterious, perhaps the reason why Morrison was idolised by so many fans. Stone truly captures the essence of the band’s live performance and shares it with us; people who may have never had the chance to experience it first hand.
If you enjoyed reading this article, please consider buying me a coffee.
USA | 1991 | 140 MINUTES | 2:39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
Cast & Crew
director: Oliver Stone.
writers: Randall Jahnson (as J. Randal Johnson) & Oliver Stone.
starring: Val Kilmer, Meg Ryan, Kyle MacLachlan, Robby Krieger & Kevin Dillon.