One of the best things about rock ‘n’ roll is that it’s ridiculous. For all its promise of liberation and rebellion, it can also be stunningly self-serious music, so enraptured by its own sense of grandeur and poetry that it doesn’t realize how silly it is. But there’s power in that, too: Young people believing they can change the world with a few songs has been a renewable resource for generations, reconnecting listeners of all ages to the idealism and passion of their adolescence. We’re all ridiculous in our youth, and popular music reminds us never to let go of that unbridled enthusiasm.
But these tendencies have their limits and you’ll never see them better illustrated than in The Doors, Oliver Stone’s hedonistic, visionary, incredibly overblown biopic about the 1960s band. Now streaming on Hulu, the 1991 film — the first from Stone that year, the other being that winter’s JFK — captures the dark side of the peace-and-love era, illustrating how the group replaced the Beatles’ sunny optimism with a kinky, doom-laden aura. Embodied by frontman Jim Morrison, the Doors of the film channeled the drugs and depravity that turned Flower Power into a sick joke. Morrison was a rider on the storm. He was too beautiful for this cruel world. Or maybe he was just a dope with a flair for the melodramatic.
If you detect a hint of snideness in my description of The Doors, I can’t help it: Ever since seeing it opening night — sneaking into the theater because I was too young for an R-rated film — I’ve been simultaneously enthralled and amused by Stone’s belief in the holy power of rock ‘n’ roll. The Doors is a mesmerizing film that’s full of shit, yet it’s full of it in the way so many people are about the golden gods of rock of the 1960s and 1970s. The movie is a tribute to Morrison, but it’s more accurately a tribute to sex and drugs and the counterculture. That it mostly plays as an excessive, tedious portrait of a narcissist is both the film’s charm and chief weakness. Stone loves Morrison for the same reason the Boomers loved Morrison — the movie opens the door to what that fandom was all about.
Highlighted by a never-better Val Kilmer as Morrison, The Doors is very much an old-school biopic, the kind where we see the rise and fall of its subject in some detail. (Biopics often conclude with one last “rise,” but Morrison never got that inspirational happy ending, dying in 1971 at the age of 27.) Stone follows the young Morrison as he forms a band in L.A. in 1965 with drummer John Densmore (Kevin Dillon), guitarist Robby Krieger (Frank Whaley) and keyboardist Ray Manzarek (Kyle MacLachlan), determined to tear down the doors of perception, turning to psychedelics to fuel the muse. Along the way, Morrison also engages in a rocky long-term relationship with Pamela Courson (Meg Ryan), who loves him even though he cheats on her frequently — sometimes right in front of her. The Doors become increasingly more popular, and although Morrison grows increasingly more difficult, The Doors is enthralled by his charisma, his self-destructive side, his insistence that the pursuit of art and truth are all that matter.
The Doors’ music has been a classic-rock staple for decades, accented by Morrison’s mournful bellow and carnal growl. The Rolling Stones wanted to get laid, too, but the Doors exuded a more mystical, trippy sex appeal befitting the grubby, hippie Venice scene they frequented, long before the tech-bros and venture capitalists invaded the city. With his tight leather pants, naked chest and bedroom eyes, Morrison was gorgeous but also dangerous, his self-pitying sensitivity undeniably alluring. And if endless loops of “Break on Through (To the Other Side),” “Light My Fire” and “Riders on the Storm” on the radio risked reducing Morrison and his band’s feral force to assman clichés, the focused horniess of their material can’t be denied. Even a minor song can carry plenty of swagger: Indeed, “Peace Frog” gives Licorice Pizza a nice little jolt when it pops up on the soundtrack.
But Stone, who was capable of great work, never had much interest in subtlety, and so The Doors is nothing but the clichés, cranked to 11. You can’t entirely blame him, though: As he told The Hollywood Reporter last year, “I’m a little square, perhaps, for your taste, but I worshiped Morrison. I thought he was a great force breaking through to the other side. He was saying things that needed to be said. It was being said by others: Jefferson Airplane, the Beatles, and so on. But he was the only one that was really going into the erotica as much as he was. Of course, he talked about Indians, shamanism, but back then, we were coming out of the 1950s. It was a very different time. He was liberated. He was sexy as a man. He felt at ease with himself. And he carried on as if he were a free man. I worshipped a free man.”
You feel that worship in every frame of The Doors, which treats Morrison like a deity. No matter how belligerent, sexist or foolish he behaves, the film is seduced by him. And he’s played perfectly by Kilmer, who imbues the singer with lust and menace. At one point, his character is described as “The God of Rock and Cock” — maybe at first you’ll laugh, but eventually you’ll think, “Yeah, okay, I can see it.” (Unfortunately, that intensity sometimes went overboard: Actress Caitlin O’Heaney, who auditioned to play Courson, claimed that Kilmer, during a scene where the characters have a screaming match, “struck her in the face and knocked her to the ground.” For the record, both Kilmer and the film’s casting director disputed O’Heaney’s version of events.)
Stone’s infatuation with Morrison’s hedonism is a nifty little metaphor for the way a lot of men (and women) genuflected at the idea of straight white male rock stars being the epicenter of the artistic universe. Not surprisingly, these artists took as a given that their every utterance was Incredibly Important, lamenting that their fame and good looks were obscuring their Significant Utterances. Or, as Morrison complains in The Doors, “Teenage death girls want my dick, not my words.”
That’s not to say the real Jim Morrison wasn’t a complicated human being — in fact, Manzarek criticized The Doors for simplifying the singer — but on screen, he’s reduced to a preening penis Saddled With Demons who will do anything to defy the man. It’s the way a generation wanted to see their rock ‘n’ roll heroes. Never mind the Morrison we encounter in The Doors is also a creep and a user — that’s a small cost to pay for being a genius.
If Kilmer wasn’t so magnetic, and if the concert scenes weren’t so gloriously alive, it would be easy to roll your eyes at Stone’s love letter to the Lizard King. Stone has often attacked his films with a feverish intensity — sweaty paranoia permeated JFK — which explains why The Doors feels like a lurid, apocalyptic kiss-off to the 1960s’ spirit of brotherhood and community. It’s not just the drugs that are destroying Morrison — it’s the growing cynicism and selfishness of the oncoming 1970s, which summon up a nihilism that seems to consume the frontman. Stone, who first got into the Doors while serving in Vietnam, sees Morrison as a troubled saint from a more spiritually searching era, destined to be brought down by his own vices and fragile dreams. That’s terribly romantic or hopelessly naive, depending on your perspective — in other words, whether you’re Stone or not.
Rock music has long been supplanted by other popular styles, with hop-hop, R&B and pop now the dominant sounds of the culture. No doubt those genres have produced plenty of their own fascinating, talented narcissists — it’s not like a guy like Jim Morrison had a monopoly on such behavior. But with rock ‘n’ roll hardly considered dangerous anymore, a film like The Doors may feel a bit like a museum piece. For aging Boomers, the movie will provide a strong whiff of nostalgia. For everyone else, it will probably be a strange time capsule back to when pop music’s biggest rebel was a white guy with a martyr complex.