Jeff Light’s review published on Letterboxd:
Oliver Stone '85-'05 Marathon - Film 5
(previous: Born on the Fourth of July <- -> next: JFK)
Stone was one of the first directors I started following, as he was making dynamic, impactful films right when I was old enough to start picking films apart and not just escaping into them. I'm well familiar with his major films, so for this revisit, I've been watching docs or listening to the commentary on the films I already know very well....
...but I couldn't do that for this movie. I had watched this several times when it first came out, but I don't think I'd seen it in over 20 years, and it's such a trippy tone poem at times that I really wanted to sink in for a proper rewatch. I tried watching with the commentary track, but the original audio is almost completely drowned out, and Stone does a proper commentary with few dead silences. It just seemed a disservice to dive into the facts and skip over the feeling...
...because that's what this is all about: feelings over facts. Werner Herzog has been accused of twisting the facts in his true-life films, which he defends by saying he's showing "the ecstatic truth". Now, I can see the criticism if you're talking about the escape of Vietnam POWs, for example, as in Rescue Dawn. But shouldn't a film about The Doors be all about "the ecstatic truth"? If you're coming to this looking for a biopic that takes you through the facts of each band member's life, stringing together the key chronology to form a birth-to-death rise-fall-rise arc...you've got the wrong genre of music.
This is blessedly, thankfully, not some sterile rock doc or mass-produced pop song. It's a proper tribute to '60s rock 'n roll, full of sex, drugs, and death. It's got swearing, nudity, passion, excess, bad behavior, and truth. It's not so much about the What as about the Why, the rare kind of biopic that gives you more of an insight into someone's motivations than an understanding of the events of their life. And this, despite involvement from all the key people still living, and pressure from all of them, too. Keyboardist Ray Manzarek didn't like all the scenes of Morrison's drug use and violent outbursts. Pam Courson's parents (she was Morrison's longtime lover) basically objected to her being portrayed negatively in any way. Morrison's family themselves didn't want to be portrayed at all and refused to cooperate.
So Oliver Stone based the script on this from interviews with over 100 people who knew Jim and were involved with The Doors in different ways at different times. The end result has Jim appearing almost as a virgin birth from the Venice Beach scene, leaving USC film school to break into the LA club circuit. It's his story really, from the time he and Manzarek started The Doors until Morrison joined The 27 Club in 1971. Morrison existed before The Doors, and The Doors existed after him, but neither was close to the same without the other, and so this is the story of that time, the life and death of that special entity which existed for those few short years, from '65-'71. The timing is perfect: they are almost the spirit of "The '60s", of the Counter-Culture itself. Too wild to even be at Woodstock. Too free to live. Too iconic to die.
Stone says he figured out where the songs would go first, then wrote the movie around them. The film is a sensory experience then, the first movie where Stone really embraces his sense of visual poetry and narrative excess. He had dabbled with the tale of a Byronic provocateur a few years before when he adapted Eric Bogosian's play, Talk Radio. But that always felt like Bogosian's work and not Stone's, and I've found it too much of a half measure to want to revisit in this marathon. No, HERE is the real deal, with Morrison the free love poet laureate both stirring revolution and being enveloped by it. The DVD has a "jump to a song" feature as a way to watch the movie, which you should totally take advantage of because that is an experience in itself. Stone chooses most of the most iconic Doors tracks to use in the film, but there are a few less famous ones, including a montage of excess backed by a pagan performance of "Not To Touch The Sun".
Those performances are perhaps the highlight of the film here, and Stone lingers on them longer than most band biopics would, which is what's responsible for the long runtime here. It's clear from the start that Morrison is not just some harmonic crooner heartthrob, like his contemporaries, The Beatles. He's a poet and a performance artist, reaching into the audience and provoking them, teasing them, feeding off of them like a symbiotic succubus. Stone films both from on the stage and above at an angle, taking in the whole scene, letting you feel the atmosphere the band is creating, the trance-like rhythms that Morrison flows on to stroke the crowd into a hedonistic orgy of plaintiveness and worshipfulness. This culminates in the "5x1/Break On Through" performance at Miami, where Morrison becomes one with the crowd, like Pan leading a bacchanal of naked dancers to cavort around the stage in a teeming scene that Stone likens to the Sodom and Gomorrah of the counter-culture movement.
But the point is that Stone is interested in the feelings here, in sinking you in to Morrison's experience, to what that long, weird trip was like. The film has a propulsion, an ebb and flow that eases into the coming storm with the gentle beginnings of "Riders on the Storm" as Morrison washes up on Venice Beach and begins his magnetic, toxic relationship with Pam (Meg Ryan!) with the kind of benign stalking that went out with the '60s. Everything about the beginning is seeding how this whole thing is going to go down though, from the trippiness and red flags to Morrison's childhood obsession with the death of a Native American in a random road accident.
For my money, Stone leans on this motif rather hard throughout the film, making his thesis that Jim was both afraid of and fascinated by Death. Everything he did was in seeking to understand it, to find that line between living and dying, where life has its sweetest meaning and its sharpest pain, for fear of the sudden and unfair loss of it. Morrison progressively pushes himself further and further out onto that edge, his psychedelic experiences leading him to look at it as a transition, an end to the pain of one existence and just a small step forward into another part of the universe....
...a small thing, since everything and everyone is connected, and yet a small thing he feared greatly. Every time he's a bit nearer to death, to understanding That Great Something Else, he sees the Native American man beckoning him, dancing him along on his way to that otherland. The repeated use of this motif and of Jim literally going out on ledges makes the point a few too many times, I think, desperately attempting to explain to a square audience what sex, and drugs, and rock 'n roll feels like in your soul. If it takes that much explaining to someone, they're never going to understand anyway.
To fit the narrative of making sense of Jim's death, Stone packs a lot in, but not to a short runtime. The normal cut (a longer one was released in '97) is still two hours and twenty minutes, though it hardly feels like it. The experience of watching the film is to go on a journey with The Doors, one that ramps up pretty quickly, then quickly gets trippy, then gets wildly high, then tumbles wildly, as Jim trips up supremely while behaving extremely, a quintessential rock god turned dad bod, gets a soft rod and take the final nod. Jim bowed out while his image was still of the lean, sleek, Dionysian performer, immortalized even more handsomely by Val Kilmer's cheekbones here. His final performances are near trances, recalling bacchanals and cult rituals more than concerts. He had pushed as far as he could, running up against a government opposed to everything he represented, and a system designed to make marketable what he sought to make a communal, imperfect exploration...
Stone exaggerates events, fictionalizes some, and skirts over others. Nothing so egregious that he couldn't get the rights to film, but enough that basically nobody involved was totally happy. And that's how you know this isn't some pandering officially-sanctioned heroic puffpiece like the NWA or Elton John biopics. Morrison comes out the worse for it here, his relentless chasing of the edge, through women, booze, drugs, fame, film, poetry, and most of all, communal performance in all shapes, it's all heightened to portray a trajectory that couldn't sustain itself. The Why of rock 'n roll. It gets the closest to explaining why they do it, why they'd rather burn out than fade away, without any dumb, simplistic childhood trauma and bad upbringing to hang the whole film on.
But wait! "You said Stone keeps going back to that car accident and the Native American!" you say. Well, yes, you've got me. You could say that this film hits some of the "paint by numbers" music biopic tropes. A bit of the behind-the-scenes of how the famous songs were made. Showing some of the context of iconic moments in the band's history. But it's such a sensory experience that I never felt it was trying to give a straightforward and reductive explanation, a nutshell encapsulation of a person's whole life. Stone instead uses Kilmer to bring us into Morrison's journey, showing us rather than telling us. And that's the great accomplishment here.
And of course, what most people remember about this film is Kilmer's career-high performance. The musical performances in the film cut back and forth between his vocals and Jim's, and even the bandmates were hard-pressed to tell which was which at any given moment. But though this is the Jim & Val show, there are many fine performances to be had in the screen-time afforded to them. Kyle Maclachlan, almost unrecognizable as Manzarek on keyboards. Frank Whaley, '90s indie icon, is great as Krieger on guitar. Young Johnny Drama, I mean Kevin Dillon, holds his own as Densmore on drums. I'm ambivalent on Meg Ryan here, but several other actors are given more to work with in less time. Crispin Glover doing a perfectly-Crispin Glover-ed version of Andy Warhol. The always underappreciated Michael Wincott as iconic music producer Paul Rothchild. Friggin' Michael Madsen turns in a pretty restrained performance as a small time actor that Jim was good friends with! Tons of walk-ons, from Kelly Hu and Debi Mazar to Jennifer Tilly and Billy Idol! The movie is just stacked.
I could go (and have) on and on about this film, as it's so dense and there's so much it's investigating. Am I a bit sad that they don't mention Morrison actually being born in my hometown? Sure. Do the rest of The Doors kind of get short-shrift here, not to mention the female roles? A valid point. Could there be a lot more to show about the role The Doors played in stoking the counter-culture, in being part of the resistance, against 'Nam, against oppression, against the squares of the world? Yeah, I feel like there's more there. Could they have shown more of the free-flow, jazz improv nature of the band's live playing and Jim's improvised lyrics? Definitely. But man, a movie can only do so much, and anything you put into the runtime often takes away from the experience in some other way.
We get a hell of an experience here, and one that I think captures that time of The Doors better than a strict factual accounting would. This is simply one of the best rock biopics of all time, and it marks the birth of the bombastic and evocative Oliver Stone that would come to be such a divisive figure for much of the rest of his career...