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Saturday, 23 April 2011

The Doors - 1991

Before starting this review I might as well mention that it's a pretty biased one for The Doors are one of my favourite bands ever, I have a general liking for all things psychedelic, and for such classic 60-70' Rock music.
I am also a great admirer of Oliver Stones work, I think of him very highly and feel he gets a lot of undeserved criticism in his native US, thankfully he is better received here in Europe.

I will admit I was uncertain as to whether I was going to enjoy this film beforehand, despite my aforementioned tastes which should of predisposed me very much in it's favour, mainly because I am generally left unsatisfied by these musician Bio Pics and because of the mixed reviews this film received from critics. Adding to my uncertainty was the fact that the former members of the Doors and those that knew Morrison have claimed this film does not depict him as he truly was, that it is not true to how he actually was during his short life.
But my uncertainty proved to be needless as I ended up thoroughly enjoying this film and I will even go so far to say that it is one of the best of the 90's and certainly one of the few truly excellent BioPics.

First of I must start by pointing out that this is first and foremost a film about Jim Morrison, the lead singer and song writer for The Doors (although ironically he didn't write the band's most famous song, Light My Fire, it was written by guitarist Robby Krieger). So those expecting a film about all the members of the band will be disappointed, of course they all appear in the film and are given the credit they deserve, the keyboardist Ray Manzareck (played by Kyle MacLachlan), guitarist Robby Krieger (Frank Whaley) and drummer John Densmore (Kevin Dillon), but even if they all perform very well and indeed look strikingly similar to the real band members, they are little more than supporting roles and the real focus is on Jim Morrison, who is played by Val Kilmer.

I must also mention the other supporting performances, Meg Ryan is really great as Pam, Jim's girlfriend. Crispin Glover is perfectly cast as Andy Warhol and it's always great to see Michael Madsen, no matter how small the role.

Val Kilmer's resemblance to Jim Morrison is simply extraordinary, it just might be some of the best biographical casting I've ever seen. One just has to look at these pictures:

Val Kilmer
Jim Morrison
Naturally they do not look exactly like each other, Morrison had a more slender face with more pronounced jaw bones, but to make up for that Val Kilmer studied Morrison's speech and movement until he "became" Jim Morrison. A true method actor's performance, he spent a year prior to filming hanging out in Morrison's old haunts, and even practised singing and succeeded in imitating Morrison's singing voice so perfectly that even the surviving members of The Doors could not tell them apart.

Val Kilmer is an actor that has been gradually fading away and is now pretty much finished, which is a shame seeing as in the 90's he was considered one of the most promising actors, after having given one of the best performances of the decade in this film. His slip into obscurity went almost unnoticed and apart from a few supporting roles, like in Bad Lieutenant, he is rarely seen these days. 
The same can be said more the director Oliver Stone, he has been gradually fading away as well, after the massive failure of Alexander he has directed little worth noting and nothing that can compare with the masterpieces he produced previously, such as Platoon, Born On The Fourth Of July, Heaven and Earth, Natural Born Killers, JFK and many more. 
And if one wishes to go even further, then one could claim that The Doors themselves have faded away over the past few years, after experiencing a revival around the time of this films release which coincided with the induction of the band into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But now, 20 years after the film release their popularity has again waned. Sadly they are not the only ones, many of these classic rock bands are going unnoticed by the younger generations who are increasingly hungry for the latest music and increasingly disparaging of older musicians. This gets more and more evident with each generation, not that there are no good musicians these days, but I just think we should not forget the greats.

The film begins with a short prelude, it shows Morrison recording his poetic album An American Prayer. This acts as a beginning and an end for the film, for basically all that transpires during the films 140 minutes runtime, is seen or told by Morrison during this recording, it is all one long reflection on the past. 
We are then shown a single event that took place in his childhood, which Morrison often claimed to have had a large impact on him. He is shown driving with his parents and coming across a road accident. He sees the victims, Native Americans, dying at the side of the road, one of them, an elderly wise looking type, particularly interests him. 
This theme of Native American's is featured throughout the entire film. Morrison is fascinated by the shamanistic rituals and other such thing. In fact the film often hints at the possibility that Morrison was either inhabited by a spirit of one such shaman or was the reincarnation of one.
Many images appear throughout the film to suggest this, often only for a split second though, but always at the moments when Morrison appears to be in need of assistance the most. One could assume that he had some sort of a guardian in the form of a Native shaman that watched over him. Maybe Morrison himself believed this, I do not know. 

 The most evident of these hints is most definitely the sequence that takes place in the desert. The Doors are in the desert to bond, form the spirit of the band while taking hallucogenic and psychdelic drugs for the whole idea for the band revolved around these drugs, they were named after the book written by Alduous Huxley named The Doors of Perception which in itself borrows from a quote by the great William Blake: "If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite."But more on that later. 
In this desert sequence, Morrison wanders of alone, following a Native who appeared riding a white horse (see above image). He enters a cave and inside has experiences that are obviously close to those often described as shamanistic. Of course I can't be sure whether this really happened or not, only Jim Morrison would know for sure, but it works extremely well in the film and actually helps elevate it above the usual musician biopic.
And finally, towards the very end of the film, we see an intriguing scene, after Jim Morrison dies peacefully in his bath, his girlfriend catches a glimpse of a Native American leaving slowly and intentionally. We get he sense that his work is done, Morrison has passed on.
This only confirms my opinion that Oliver Stone clearly added spiritual elements to the film that are purely his own interpretation. But it doesn't bring the film down in any way, in fact it makes it better.
For Jim Morrison was apparently very interested in all such spiritual, esoteric things.

Anyway, I believe I was trying to do a plot summary before veering dramatically of course, so after this prelude we see Jim Morrison as a grown man, making his way to L.A.
He is seen in film school, making strange experimental and poetical films yet ultimately leaves film school and with his friend Ray Manzarek forms The Doors as an outlet for his poetry. Little do they suspect that within a couple of years they will become one of the best-selling bands in the world. Their success come quickly and they are quickly propelled into a world of celebrities, fame and drugs. The other members of the band seem to be able to cope with this new found success in their own ways, but Jim Morrison goes of the rails a bit, drinking, drug taking, countless affairs. He lives a volatile life and eventually ends up distancing himself from those that had been his friends. Pam stays faithful to him and even accompanies him in his self imposed exile in Paris, where he dies not long afterwards from heart failure at the age of 27.

He is not portrayed as a particularly pleasant character in this film but despite his troubled personal life he still deserves respect for his amazing work.
One must also keep in mind that he lived in a very different time, he was in the forefront of the counter culture movement in the 60's-70's but eventually proved to crazy even for them and wasn't even invited to attend Woodstock. He was definitely a rebel and a very creative one at that. He obviously was aware of the problems of the world and the times (Vietnam etc...) he lived in, but sadly his creativity came hand in hand with a fiery, excessive and uncontrollable personality that would eventually be his downfall. He fully believe din the counter culture movement, the free love, drug taking, psychedelic atmosphere that surrounded those times, he wasn't in it just because everyone else was, he wasn't in it in a tentative way and he never left it. In a way he represented it.

As I mentioned earlier, The Doors were linked to the poet William Blake through the title of the band. And Jim Morrison clearly admired Blake a great deal, as is evident when listening to the song "End Of The Night" from the album "The Doors", as the line "Some are born to sweet delight, some are born to endless night" is burrowed directly from Blake's poem entitled "Auguries of Innocence".
Morrison thought of himself first and foremost as a poet.
His lyrics were always thoughtful and often moving. He was clearly a very intelligent man, who was very creative. But The Doors aren't one of my favourite bands solely because of him, in fact the reason I like them is because they play so well together, they are easily one of the most harmonious bands I've ever heard. None really overshadowing the others.

The film received much criticism for it's representation of Morrison, I think one must bear in mind that this isn't a documentary, it is a fictionalised account of the events, and it is very much Oliver Stones personal take on the matter. One must not forget that He grew up in the times this film portrays and was a massive fan of The Doors, so he could not have made this film without a hint of nostalgia and completely unbiased.
Yet he succeeds in recreating the period in which the film takes place very well, he puts the first hand experience he acquired at the time to excellent use and even if much is probably exaggerated it stills represents the times admirably.

I've noticed that many people do not think very highly of Oliver Stone as a director, of course Platoon is widely considered a great film. But I find that one comes across more criticism for his work that praise, even from professional critics who call him heavy handed. 
I personally find his style of filming very interesting; of course he has made some bad films, as all directors have, but I think most criticism for his work stems from his strong Left leaning political views which he commonly expresses in his work. Some may even accuse him of being anti American, and his films do often portray the dark side of the US, such as Natural Born Killers, which deals with the America,'s fascination for violence and celebrity status. Or even Born On The Fourth Of July which tells the tale of a disillusioned Vietnam Veteran who returns home to a country oblivious of his suffering in the conflict and eventually turns to drugs due to his feeling of betrayal. But these aren't really anti-America, they are honest films about interesting subjects, subjects which are controversial and may offend many people. 

Stone's style as a film-maker is most interesting, what some accuse as heavy handedness I see as focused, he knows exactly where he wants his films to go and he takes them there, no matter the audiences expectations. He films are relatively simple, he doesn't indulge in too mush symbolism or artistic flourishes. Instead he just tells the story, and he does so very well for he is a great story teller. 
His camera is, like his stories, very sure of itself. The shots are nothing particularly amazing, but they achieve their purpose admirably (with the notable exception of Natural Born Killers, which is one of the most bizarrely shot films I've ever seen), he varies well between close ups, which are good for the actors, and wide shots, often shot in a swooping motion.

I also particularly liked how the films narrative was set up.Oliver Stone was wise to keep it straightforward, barely any flashbacks and frequent reminders of the date, so as to place the film in time suitably which is were other similar films fail, the BioPic has got to be firmly rooted in it's times, for example, the Ian Dury Biopic that was made recently called "Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll" failed at this, there was little indication of the date and no other famous contemporaries of Ian Dury are mentioned, thus the film is to focused on the character and fails to place him conveniently in historical context.
This is however one of the strengths of The Doors. Oliver stone manages to include many events, characters and other such things that make the film easy to place in a historical context for any viewer with a bit of knowledge of the times.

The film however does have it's faire share of flaws. It's considerable length may cause it to seem repetitive at times. There are perhaps a couple live performances to many and to many shots of naked people dancing around fires.                                                                         Also Oliver Stones directing style can get a bit exhausting at times, it is very active, full of rapid shots and often these rapid shots can be repetitive as well.                                                                            The character of Jim Morrison can get frustrating at times as well, with his constant excesses and arguments.  Stone tries to balance the positive and negative but at times he fails, for it is clear that he greatly admires Morrison yet felt he had to include some of his negative aspects as well, which makes these aspects seem a bit forced at times.                                                                                               The fact that the film is primarily aimed at fans of The Doors may be considered a downside by some, but if you don't like their music I don't see why you would want to see this film anyway. It's also best to have a minimum amount of knowledge about Jim Morrison and The  Doors before watchign the film, otherwise you may be confused at times, like I said, it primarily aimed at fans, not as those who are new to The Doors music.

One of the main criticism that could be levelled against this film would be it's portrayal of Jim Morrison, some have claimed it is a caricature. I find this claim a bit puzzling, I mean isn't it only to expected that he would be a caricature, this isn't a documentary, it's a fictional interpretation that stills follows real events as close as possible. Yet isn't any portrayal of a historical personage a caricature ? How was Oliver Stone supposed to knows all the little complexities of the man, he never even met him. Of course he would portray him a a rather broad way, it's just makes a better film that way. You may not agree with me here, but I still think it's impossible to portray an individual in all that person's complex aspects, naturally the director would choose the most interesting ones and develop them on screen making a larger than life character.
But then again, apparently Jim Morrison was in himself a larger than life kind of person. 

But despite these few flaws, the film is still one of my favourites of the 90's. Oliver Stone was at the height of his career when he made this, having released JFK (a great film) the same year.
Of course it is highly recommended to all fans of The Doors.

Jim Morrison's tomb
Jim Morrison is buried in Le Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris, alongside other artists such as Oscar Wilde, Balzac, Rossini, Chopin, the genius Melies and the great Champollion. So he is definitely in interesting company.

Here are a few awesome video's of The Doors performing, if you're unfamiliar with their work:
Touch Me
Hello, I love You
Love Street
Five To One
Waiting For The Sun

And that concludes my rambling review for The Doors, I'll try and make my reviews more concise in the future.
All comments are greatly appreciated.

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