The rise and early demise of Jim Morrison, lead singer and writer of the legendary rock band ‘The Doors’.
Val Kilmer’s performance as Jim Morrison makes this movie sing -- literally. He sang all of the live tracks on the film -- Morrison’s own band-mates had trouble distinguishing Kilmer’s voice from the real thing. He spent a year dressing like Morrison, hanging out at his old haunts on Sunset Strip – getting under the skin of the character. But the beauty is he’s not alone. A strong supporting cast, production design and direction along with generous contributions from the bands remaining members all give you a sense you are there – at the beginning of the Summer of Love, at the birth of a new music.
The story begins in the desert at the site of a car crash. We see a four year old Jim with his parents as they drive by an accident. Police wave them on. Several Native Americans are injured, some dying. In Morrison’s account the spirit of a dying Indian leapt into him – it was his life’s pivotal moment.
We flash forward to 1965, Venice Beach, California. Morrison is a film student at UCLA where he meets Ray Manzarek (Kyle MacLachlan), his future band mate. After school he leads a bohemian life as a poet and drifter. He hooks up with Pamela Courson (Meg Ryan); puts together a band with Ray on organ, Robbie Krieger (Frank Whaley) on guitar and John Densmore (Kevin Dillon) on drums -- The Doors. In one of the films mesmerizing sequences the band trips out in the desert, flying high on peyote. Morrison imagines he sees the Indian from the crash site, his spiritual guide. He follows him into a cave -- the unknown.
Morrison believed in a “long prolonged derangement of the senses to attain the unknown.” He used peyote and acid and garden variety alcohols to get there. ‘The Doors’ refers to William Blake’s quote: “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is: infinite.” Blake also said “The road to excess leads to the palace of wisdom”. The rebel poet Rimbaud was a hero; Kerouac and the Beats; he studied Nietzsche and shamanism. More than any other rock-star, he had a firm sense of the traditions he sprang from. His baritone vocals and Manzarek’s organ gave the band its distinct sound. But it is Morrison and Krieger’s lyrics and the arrangements they used in live concert that made them unique. What put them over the top was the charismatic character that was Jim Morrison. He pushed all the limits.
This is Oliver Stone at his best – when he is free from the rigor of realism and the subject lends it self to creative editing. He captures the spirit of the times -- a snapshot of the American Dream cresting and breaking through the prism of a life. As for Morrison – no two hour biopic could hope to flesh out such a man. Ray Manzarek apparently was not happy with Jim’s portrait. There is a heavy focus on the self-destruction. I was a fan in the day but I knew nothing of that – what I saw was a leader, an honest soul intent on seeking a deeper truth – a poet.
The Doors are one of the most influential bands in Rock -- it was a risk to make this film: it could have failed in so many ways. Instead it succeeds by and large across the board -- as a visual poem to a band, an artist, an age -- it is more than a good movie – it is a gift.