Movies about rock & roll stars are almost always a sham. With the exception of Alex Cox’s great punk tragicomedy, Sid and Nancy (1986), rock biopics inevitably tone down the seamier sides of the pop life-style: the drugs and alcohol, the orgiastic profusion of sexual adventure, the sheer egomaniacal craziness that, for better or worse, have all been as integral to the rock mystique as the music, the clothes, the fame. Now, though, there’s Oliver Stone’s The Doors, and whatever reservations one may have about this exhausting, dark-side-of-the-’60s epic, there can be little doubt that Stone has captured a particular, bombs-away brand of rock & roll excess with definitive candor. After The Doors, it’s doubtful anyone will ever have to make another movie about a self-destructive young pop messiah who guzzles whiskey every moment he’s awake, has groupies coming out of his ears, and treats everyone around him with the same jerky, zoned-out disregard.
Written by Stone and J. Randal Johnson, the film is a hyperbolic ramble — a kaleidoscopic docudrama about the first great American band to emerge from Los Angeles. Over a five-year period, the Doors churned out an astounding amount of junk and also 15 to 20 of the most thrillingly impassioned rock & roll tracks ever recorded. Early on, there’s a nifty scene in which the fledgling Doors, seated inside a sunny beach house, try out the musical and lyrical ideas that will soon coalesce into ”Light My Fire.” The guitarist, Robby Krieger (Frank Whaley), has written the lyrics, but when he tries to sing them they sound like a dippy ode to teeny-bop love. Then Jim Morrison (Val Kilmer) takes over. Up until then, he has seemed little more than a charming and singularly pretentious L.A. beach bum, a kid who converses by muttering dreamy fragments of ”poetry” inspired by his favorite, consciousness-expanding authors. Now, standing in front of the band, he offers a variation on the lyrics, throwing in a few morbid words of his own. What really transforms the song, though, is the dark majesty of his delivery. Kilmer, who performed most of his own vocals, captures not merely the timbre of Morrison’s voice but his phrasing, the way he seemed to be caressing every word.
No other rock star ever sang like Jim Morrison. He had a deeply sonorous, almost classical baritone, and when accompanied by the other three Doors, a rhapsodic garage ensemble that sounded like the house band for Satan’s discotheque, he lent a unique, mesmeric clarity to the primordial yearnings of the late ’60s. He was also the first superstar hippie with an aura of pre-counterculture masculinity. There was nothing remotely smiley or reassuring about Morrison. He was like some dark Hollywood prince of the ’40s who’d somehow stumbled into the role of rock demigod. The image of this glamorously disheveled, pornographic Dionysus spoke to the most feverish undercurrents of the counterculture, to the need to push past any and all limits.
As Morrison, Val Kilmer gives a star-making performance. Lolling around in his love beads and black-leather pants, his thick dark mane falling over features that are at once baby-sweet and preternaturally dangerous, Kilmer captures, to an astonishing degree, the hooded, pantherish charisma that made Morrison the most erotically charged pop performer since the early days of Elvis. Morrison, as Kilmer plays him, seems lost in his own space, and his sexual lure springs from this ethereal self-absorption. We can see why he starts boozing it up: The liquor keeps him sealed off — in a strange way, it keeps him pure.
Soon, the Doors are playing the rock clubs of the Sunset Strip, where Morrison is already high on his own magnetism. Onstage at the Whisky A Go-Go, during the climax of ”The End,” he prances around in a joyous frenzy. Though the song is about death, clearly this is a man possessed, playing out some ecstatic Druid ritual in his head.
The Doors has some memorable moments (the concert scenes are especially good), and it captures one aspect of the ’60s better than any movie before it: the dark narcissism that allowed a strutting poet-stud like Jim Morrison to feed off his audience. The infamous incident in Miami in which Morrison, drunk, supposedly flashed the crowd, plays here as a consummation of the ’60s, a case of a star trying to tear down every last barrier between his inner and outer selves, and between himself and the audience.
Mostly, though, the film wants to be an intimate portrait of Morrison. And that’s where Stone’s frenzied, one-thing-after-another approach takes its toll. As docudramas go, The Doors is more docu than drama: It simply presents Morrison’s life and dissolution, bottle by bottle, without really giving us a peek into his soul. Stone essentially buys into the star’s myth about himself — that he was a pop-culture shaman who lived to go over the edge. Then the movie undercuts the myth by showing us, in agonizing detail, what the booze did to him.
The trouble is, Morrison spends most of the film in such a haze of intoxication and self-love that we feel walled off from him. The movie could have used some stronger supporting characters. Kathleen Quinlan has a few moments as the smart, sexy hippie journalist Patricia Kennealy. But it’s a mystery why Morrison, after hundreds of groupies, stays with his girlfriend, Pamela Courson (Meg Ryan), for many years. She’s been made into such a generically nice flower child that we have no idea why she isn’t just tossed onto the heap along with the others. Kyle MacLachlan brings a winning earnestness to the role of Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek, a rather straight young man who stares in horror as Jim begins to fall apart onstage. The movie toys with setting up these two in a kind of Lennon-McCartney duality, but this doesn’t come to much, either. A dramatic film, even one based on a true story, requires imaginative shaping, not just a piling up of incidents. Stone ”presents” Morrison without really interpreting him, and so for most of The Doors we’re simply watching this increasingly obnoxious screwup slide toward the grave.
What’s missing? Humor, for one. There’s a funny sequence set backstage at The Ed Sullivan Show, but for the most part the film treats Morrison’s desert acid trips and alcoholic escapades with dire solemnity. In a sense, this is justified: Stone is trying to stay true to the doom-laden spirit of the late ’60s and to the aura of this particular band. But if that’s the idea, why the film’s nervous, rapid-fire plotting? With its epic structure and underdeveloped scenes and characters, The Doors has the feel of an Olympian cocaine rush. It skitters past you, teeming yet distant. Stone even throws away ”Light My Fire.” He uses it as background for a montage when the band first hits it big, but he cuts out the hypnotic keyboard and guitar solos that made the original, seven-minute version such a pop trance-out. Stone may be the only director in Hollywood who could make a 2-hour-and-15-minute epic about the Doors and still not have the patience to play their greatest and most defining song in its entirety. He’s one ’60s veteran whose heartbeat has been resynched to the rhythms of MTV.