Re-evaluating Oliver Stone’s The Doors film, 25 Years On

If you overlook the fact that I was not off my face on drugs at the time, I embarked on my first viewing of The Doors film, a year after its original cinema release, in the ideal circumstances to wring the maximum enjoyment out of it: I was seventeen, yet to have sex with anyone who was not myself, had lately become enamoured with the idea of growing my untameable hair, and, after seven years hidden from bohemia in a sports bumpkin bubble, was thirsty to catch up on the musical references of people much cooler than me. In a somewhat solemn manner I informed my dad that I was getting heavily into the music of The Doors. “FOOKIN’ RUBBISH,” he replied. “JIM MORRISON WAS A BIG BABY. MICK JAGGER WAS LOADS BETTER.” Of course, my sentiments are not dissimilar now, and The Stones piss on The Doors from a great height in every possible way, but at that point The Doors, as a 1960s band my parents didn’t know much about or understand, were useful for experimental adolescent identity-forging purposes. “They’re just too bohemian and alternative and complex for those two,” I thought. “But I get them.” As somebody who had never met a real life professional musician or watched a film about rock music I absorbed Oliver Stone’s overegged retelling of the band’s conception, fame and downfall unquestioningly. Being a person with no musical talent who quite fancied forming a band, the idea of it here looked extremely appealing to me, not to mention surprisingly easy. First you meet a friend you haven’t seen for a while on a beach and sing some lyrics to him that you have jotted down in haste. Impressed, he then suggests that the two of you conquer the world with your music. Furthermore, by the mere act of walking along the beach slightly excitably arm in arm afterwards you usher in the actual arrival of the 60s.

You have to give The Doors some credit: its vision of the 60s is a unique one. In it, The Doors are in fact in charge of the 60s, driving the 60s forward into the abyss, as if the 60s is a multicoloured van they have bought for a reasonable price from some dude. Almost all other music in this 60s is saccharine in comparison to their dark, dangerous truth-telling. You get a measure of just how absurd this vision is the first time in the film that you hear some actual dark, dangerous music: Venus In Furs by The Velvet Underground. This soundtracks Morrison and his bandmates’ entry to the party where they meet Andy Warhol, after which a Baywatch Nico gets in an elevator with Morrison and delivers him cinema’s least sexy blow job. Hearing the song feels like taking some earplugs out and being dropped abruptly into midday New York traffic. That is not to say I dislike the music of The Doors or view it all as a drink of watered down shaman juice. Break On Through would be a very very good track if you took it to an out of the way garage and paid a couple of mechanics to beat it up – maybe, say, about half as good as Mr Farmer by The Seeds. Peace Frog is astoundingly great, and one of the few songs in history to seamlessly combine psychedelic funk with an intermission for iffy poetry. I genuinely adore Peace Frog. It is so great, in fact, that on its own it validates The Doors’ existence, and makes all the nonsense they came out with worthwhile. 

But it’s important not to judge The Doors too harshly for their nonsense while watching The Doors, since the living members of The Doors disliked The Doors upon its 1991 release and did not view it as a realistic portrayal of their band or its late, benighted leader. Val Kilmer has received a lot of flak for the way he plays Morrison but I think that’s unfair: he does a good job of fully embracing the hysterical, drunken, babyish version of him that Stone clearly wants to give us. I thought Kilmer’s Morrison was pretty cool the first time I saw the film but admittedly that was because I was so mesmerised by the evolution of his hair that I was not listening to a word he said. For each of the twenty four years that has passed since then he has seemed a more deeply preposterous and unpleasant nutcase. 

What is startling is how fully formed this character of preposterous and unpleasant nutcase is right from the beginning of the narrative. He quits film school in a huff after receiving some very justified criticism from his lecturer about his wanksome short movie then, topless, stalks a woman back to her house and climbs into the building’s upper floor via a tree. Amazingly, she seems totally ok with this, returns his kiss, and her boyfriend, who has witnessed the end of the scene from behind, refrains from intervening in any natural human way such as, say, calling Morrison a big streak of piss and headbutting him forcefully back out into the fresh air. Soon Morrison and the girl, whose name is Pam, will begin a legendary love affair. Pam is played by Meg Ryan either well or poorly, depending on whether Stone’s intention was for her to be one of the weakest, most easily manipulated female characters ever to appear on screen. When she is asked her occupation upon entering a plane that she is boarding with the band and its entourage, her reply is “Ornament.”

For at least its first half, The Doors serves less as a biopic and more a handy set of ‘How To Spot A Dickhead Boyfriend’ warning signs. With his initial unwillingness to turn face on to the crowd, his sulkiness when one of his bandmates writes better lyrics than him, his flailing tantrums on the few occasions when he doesn’t instantly get his own way, his childish dependence on Pamela’s emotional support and concommitant disloyalty to it, Morrison illustrates the fine line that can often separate shyness from sociopathy. After a while you stop wondering how much of this is realistic and start wondering if Morrison actually slept with Stone’s girlfriend at some point and the film is one giant vendetta, so unflattering is it towards the frontman. Not once but twice, in the space of no more than three minutes, women Morrison is in bed with tell him: “Don’t worry. It happens to other guys too.” When a policeman sprays mace at Morrison and the journalist Morrison is about to hump backstage at a gig, he screams that he is “blind” in such a way that I could not help be reminded of a shrill, out-of-control toddler I saw in the Paignton branch of Morrisons earlier this year, running down an aisle, pulling cereal boxes to the floor. I haven’t seen the director’s cut but look forward to doing so one day – especially for the deleted scenes ‘Jim Gets A Small Splinter And Phones The Rest Of The Doors To Announce He Needs To Have His Hand Amputated’ and ‘Some Native Americans Who Just Want Some Time To Themselves Take Out A Restraining Order On Jim’.

For all that, the film does have some very interesting insights into the creative process, chief amongst them perhaps being the moment when the band hit upon the winning melody of Light My Fire. Guitarist Robby Krieger modestly demonstrates his initial idea for the song, drummer John Densmore says that it sounds kind of like The Byrds (you wish, mate), Morrison sings Krieger’s words and Manzarek, at his keyboard, asks the rest of them: “Can you give me about five minutes?” Morrison, Krieger and Densmore go outside for a walk on the sand, and almost immediately Manzarek shouts “I’ve got it!” and the famous keyboard intro to the song is born. This of course echoes many other lightbulb moments in the conception of famous singles: the time when Gerry Rafferty had barely started having a fag outside the studio and the guy he’d got in to play the saxophone on Baker Street shouted “I’ve got it!”, for example, or the time when Shaun and Paul Ryder and Rowetta had not even made it from the studio to the kebab shop on Great Ancoats Street in Manchester and they heard the excited shout of “I’ve got it!” from Bez in the building behind them as he hit upon the exact weird dance he would do during Step On.

By the second half of the film, any vague relationship to reality has gone out of the window: perhaps the same window Morrison exits through when pissing about on a hotel room ledge, showing off to the low-life hangers on he has picked up on his mission to destroy himself. The film could be best viewed as a surreal exploration of the little known fact that dark mysterious people can simultaneously be very boring. Yet, for that, it is somehow no less watchable or quotable. “Yeah, fuck off, Ray,” says Billy Idol, joining in with Morrison’s verbal attack on the long-suffering Manzarek, while lying across a dining table with his shirt half off. Nothing in the preceding few moments has explained why Billy Idol should be lying across a dining table with his shirt half off, but on the other hand, why should anything make sense in the middle of a scene where famous rock stars and their wives argue to the brink of death over a duck. If you can watch this scene and not feel an uncontrollable urge to say a cockney “Yeah, fuck off, Ray” to anyone you meet called Ray during the ensuing month, you probably are a better person than I am.

“I went through this whole thing, watching Janis dive to the bottom of a bottle of Southern Comfort,” says producer Paul Rothchild to an inebriated Morrison during the making of The Doors’ Soft Parade, almost two years before Rothchild first worked with Janis, on her Pearl album. Chaos descends during the Miami concert where Morrison gets charged with indecent exposure: the stage is swamped, the band somehow play on with high precision coherence, and Morrison leads a conga line out on the floor. The Doors have reached their creative nadir: finally, they have become Black Lace.

In Stone’s version of the band’s story, little space is made for the fact that their final two albums, Morrison Hotel and LA Woman, are their best: the title track on the latter, Peace Frog and Riders On The Storm all hitting the spot, hampered only by the fact that their vocalist sounds less like a man with a deep voice than a man experimenting alone with what having a deep voice might feel and sound like. In the oversimplified language of a bad biopic like this, Morrison is simply a fat, drunken guy who was once beautiful and slightly talented and is now losing everything he had going for him, including his erection. It’s only a short inevitable step from here to his tragic early death in a bathtub in Paris, denying us so much, including the chance to see him interviewed on The One Show four decades later. Everyone has a very self-conscious “We’re at the end of the film and the band!” look on their face. “As far as I’m concerned, I made music with Dionysus,” Krieger tells Morrison as Morrison announces his intentions to travel to Paris to write a terrible book. It’s lines like this that remind you just how creaky and awkward most rock films are and of the rare and preciousness of great ones such as Almost Famous, where rock stars under the strain of constant touring and media analysis dole out real, funny bits of prime bicker to each other, such as “Your looks have become a problem.” 

If only Movie Manzarek had said “Your looks have become a problem” to Movie Morrison early on, so much of this fiasco might have been avoided. But he wouldn’t. He’s too nice, too much of a happy yes mirror to Movie Morrison’s preening. Kyle MacLachlan, who plays him, is an actor far too complex and talented for this script, but even he seems to give up sometimes and go with the flow. In an early montage that signposts The Doors’ rise to prominence in dumbo neon, he looks up from his keyboard with a cheesy grin during a concert, in a way that suggests Oliver Stone is out of shot beneath the keyboard, peering up through between the gap in MacLachlan’s legs shouting, “Do a face that suggests that everything is going brilliantly!” But even then there is an extra sense that “Everything is going brilliantly” is not what MacLachlan is thinking at all. What he could well be really thinking is: “Yeah, fuck off, Ray.”

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13 thoughts on “Re-evaluating Oliver Stone’s The Doors film, 25 Years On

  1. Great look back at this movie. It's been a lot of years since I've seen it. And I don't really know much about the guys in the band. Thanks for the Tom Cox's eye view of The Doors.


  2. “Yeah, fuck off, Ray,” says Billy Idol, joining in with Morrison’s verbal attack on the long-suffering Manzarek, while lying across a dining table with his shirt half off. Nothing in the preceding few moments has explained why Billy Idol should be lying across a dining table with his shirt half off, but on the other hand, why should anything make sense in the middle of a scene where famous rock stars and their wives argue to the brink of death over a duck. If you can watch this scene and not feel an uncontrollable urge to say a cockney "Yeah, fuck off, Ray" to anyone you meet called Ray during the ensuing month, you probably are a better person than I am.

    This makes me wish that I spent more time taking recreational drugs as a young person.

    Hilarious piece. I hate The Doors with a passion, purveyors of bad pub rock that they basically are. Tell your dad that I agree with him.

  3. As always, a wonderful piece of writing. Never a fan of TheDoors nor have I seen the movie, but I will now since you have stimulated my interest. I'm sure to i.e. wit from a different perspective since reading your review. That's a good thing.

  4. Wonderfully written and very (from my perspective) accurate look at the movie as well as The Doors itself.

    And special thanks for the shout out to Almost Famous, truly a movie that came close to 'getting' what it means to be a rock fan.

  5. Well, I've just been and bought The Doors and Almost Famous off the back of this article, since I've not seen either! I'm really looking forward to the "Yeah, fuck off, Ray" scene. I don't feel I can start using the phrase (and mark my words, I'll be using it on everyone) until I've seen it in its original setting, you know?

    Cracking stuff, Tom!

  6. I think the only place where the Doors work for me is as soundtrack to Apocalypse Now (fittingly the film also has Harrison Ford in it who used to be a roadie for the Doors).

    Other than that they were always the weakest of 60's band. The Chocolate Watchband always was the band the Doors wanted to be.

    1. Ford wasn’t a Roadie for The Doors, he worked for a week as part of a camera crew filming the band on tour in 1968.

  7. This has almost made me want to watch the film to see what you mean, even though I don't know anything about The Doors and am ignorant of music generally.

  8. Well you know what i loved the Doors they were a soundtrack to my teens and represented the 60s to me and by the way i'm about the same age as you. The film is not great and hugely flawed but i still loved the gorgeous Val and for a time he seemed real to me. Not very articulate at this time of night you writing always makes me laugh however.

  9. I love that "ornament" line. I also love that the first five minutes of the film is given over to finding various ways for Morrison to say the rest of the band are useless – "Don't you believe in doors?" "Don't need 'em". I'm convinced the whole thing is a fuck you from Stone to the remaining doors and the Morrison/Coulson estates for insisting on various script changes. Then there are the various passion references, the surely deliberately terrible wigs, Nico dressed like a ten-dollar hooker, the kinetic live scenes, the "bombastic and pretentious" criticism of Morrison's student film that you can easily imagine being a shot back by Stone at his critics since time immemorial… I actually think it might be my favourite film of his; it's so unapologetically OTT, simultaneously revelling in the rock'n'roll myth and holding the whole thing up as an absurd cartoon. There's more than a hint of Ken Russell's Lisztomania about it.

  10. Absolutely love the doors and my dad didnt tell me to!!morrison in real life could of easily manufactured his preened look to stay pretty for his female fans,but he chose to live his life through his art and test the road to excess and up to a certain point there is no turning back!!jim morrison was very captivating,even for a non fan to view and evaluate itIIt is oliver stones version and like all films it is over exagerrated,only jim morrison himself can give an opinion and i would of loved him to express what he thought.He didnt walk out of university he completed his degree and had a IQ of 149.judge the man,not the myth.

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