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A-Ron’s Film Rewind Presents: “The Doors” (1991) – The 30th Anniversary

Together with pianist Ray Manzarek (who I got to meet in one of the best meet and greets I’ve ever experienced, but sadly not long before he passed) and Jim Morrison who both co-founded The Doors during the summer of 1965 in Venice, California. The band consisted of vocalist Jim Morrison, keyboardist Ray Manzarek, guitarist Robby Krieger and drummer John Densmore. The band took its name from the title of Aldous Huxley’s book “The Doors of Perception”, itself a reference to a quote by William Blake. The Doors had spent two years in obscurity until shooting to prominence with their number-one single in the United States, “Light My Fire”, taken from their self-titled debut album. 

After signing with Elektra Records, The Doors released six albums in five years. They were one of the most successful bands during that time and by 1972 The Doors had sold over 4 million albums domestically and nearly 8 million singles. When The Doors debut album came out during the first week of 1967, it sounded little like the other pop music that was getting airplay alongside its breakthrough single, “Light My Fire”. 

They had no bassist, just an organ player who pretty much dominated every song and a singer who often came off like he was a drunken poet in search of an open mic night and a drink. Their music featured a mix of blues, cabaret and originals that were a little bit of both plus a dash of the emerging psychedelic sound. It all came to an end when, Jim Morrison had died unexpectedly in his hotel’s bathtub in Paris at the age of 27. No autopsy was performed and the cause of Morrison’s death remains disputed, but is said he died from heart failure. In 1993, the band were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. 

It was only a matter of time until Jim Morrison’s wild personality, poetic lyrics, distinctive voice, unpredictable and erratic performances, and the dramatic circumstances surrounding his life and early death would become a motion picture. Controversial filmmaker Oliver Stone took on that duty to bring Morrison and band mates to the big screen in the 1991 biopic that now reaches it’s 30th anniversary on March 1st. Oliver Stone had been a fan of The Doors since he first heard them in 1967, when he was a 21 year old soldier in Vietnam.

But before the film could even start production, Oliver Stone and his producers had to negotiate with the three surviving band members and their label, Elektra Records, as well as the parents of both Morrison and his girlfriend Pamela Courson (who was played in the film by Meg Ryan). Morrison’s parents advised that they would only allow themselves to be depicted in a dream-like flashback sequence at the beginning of the film and in no other way. While the Coursons wanted there to be no suggestion in any way that Pamela had caused Morrison’s death. Oliver Stone had found the Coursons the most difficult to deal with because they wanted Pamela to be portrayed as “an angel”.

While researching for the film, Stone read through transcripts of interviews with over 100 people who had history with the band. Stone penned the film script in the summer of 1989, later stating that “The Doors script was always problematic. Even when we shot, but the music helped fuse it together”. Stone had first picked the songs he wanted to use and then wrote “each piece of the movie as a mood to fit that song”. The Coursons were not fans of Stone’s script and tried to slow the production down by refusing to allow any of Morrison’s later poetry to be used in the film. The Courson’s only had a say in this because when Morrison died, Pamela acquired the rights to Morrison’s poetry and when she died, her parents got the rights to his poetry writings. 

Originally directors Brian De Palma (“Scarface”), Martin Scorsese (“GoodFellas” and William Friedkin (“The French Connection”) had all flirted with the making of a Doors biopic over the years. In 1985, Columbia Pictures acquired the rights from both The Doors and the Morrison estate to make a film. Producer Sasha Harari had always wanted Oliver Stone to write the screenplay but had never heard back from his agent. After two unsatisfactory scripts were produced, Imagine Films (owned by director Ron Howard and producer Brian Grazer) replaced Columbia Pictures. Harari contacted Oliver Stone again and the director met with the surviving band members, telling them he wanted to keep a particularly wild scene from one of the early drafts (still unclear which scene he was referring to). The group was offended by this and exercised their right of approval over the director and rejected Oliver Stone.

By 1989, mega 80’s producers Mario Kassar and Andrew Vajna (“Total Recall” and “Basic Instinct”) who owned Carolco Pictures, had acquired the rights to the project and wanted Oliver Stone to direct it. The Doors who had first rejected Oliver Stone ended up seeing his film “Platoon” (1986) and were impressed with what he had done. With a better meeting this time around with the band, Stone had agreed to make the film after his next project, “Evita” that starred Madonna. After spending years working on “Evita”, the film fell apart over salary negotiations with original actress Meryl Streep and Stone quickly moved into pre-production for “The Doors” movie. 

Guitarist Robby Krieger had always opposed a Doors biopic unless Oliver Stone signed on to direct. While, keyboardist Ray Manzarek had been the biggest advocate of immortalizing the band on film and was opposed to Stone’s involvement. He was not happy with the direction that Stone was going to take with the film and refused to give his approval. According to actor Kyle MacLachlan (“Twin Peaks”) who plays Manzarek said, “I know that he and Oliver weren’t speaking. I think it was hard for Ray, he being the keeper of the Doors myth for so long”. 

According to Krieger, “when the Doors broke up Ray had his idea of how the band should be portrayed and John and I had ours”. Manzarek stated that he was not asked to consult on the film but that he wanted it to be about all four band members equally, rather than solely focus on Morrison. Conversely, Stone stated that he repeatedly tried to get Manzarek involved, but “all he did was rave and shout. He went on for three hours about his point of view…I didn’t want Ray to be dominant, but Ray thought he knew better than anybody else”.

“Oliver Stone has assassinated Jim Morrison”. That’s how Ray Manzarek reviewed The Doors biopic. “The film portrays Jim as a violent, drunken fool,” says Manzarek. “That wasn’t Jim. When I walked out of the movie, I thought, ‘Geez, who was that jerk?’”. Manzarek feels Val Kilmer’s portrayal of Morrison was “adequate and a nice attempt”. Manzarek also thought that the lavish, re-created Doors concert footage was “brilliantly filmed, although over-amped and sensationalistic”.

But he insists that the movie fails to capture his band’s artistic vision. “The film comes from the entirely wrong philosophical base. The Doors were about idealism and the ‘60s quest for freedom and brotherhood. But the film isn’t based on love. It’s based in madness and chaos. Oliver has made Jim into an agent of destruction”.

As for the film’s alleged errors or alterations, Manzarek claims: “Jim didn’t light Pam’s closet on fire. He didn’t throw a TV set at me. His student film didn’t have images from ‘Triumph of the Will.’ That was totally made up. And Jim never quit film school. He graduated from UCLA”. He also believes that the movie misses the Doors’ basic message. “All you see is Jim as a drunken hedonist. The tragedy is that fame consumed him. But that wasn’t Jim’s message. He was intelligent. He was loving. He was a good man who believed in freedom and in questioning authority. But you’d never know that from seeing this film”.

Several actors, including Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp, John Travolta and Richard Gere, were each considered for the role of Morrison when the project was still in development in the 80s, with lead singers Bono of U2 and Michael Hutchence of INXS also expressing interest in the role. Oliver Stone initially offered the role to Ian Astbury of the band, The Cult who declined the role because he was not happy with the way Morrison was represented in the film. 

When Stone began talking about the project in 1988, he had Val Kilmer in mind to play Morrison, after seeing his performance in the Ron Howard fantasy film “Willow”. Kilmer had the same kind of singing voice as Morrison and to convince Stone that he was right for the role, Kilmer spent several thousand dollars of his own money and made his own eight-minute audition video, singing and looking like Morrison at various stages of his life. To prepare for the role, Kilmer lost weight and spent six months rehearsing Doors songs every day; the actor learned 50 songs, 15 of which are actually performed in the film. 

Kilmer also spent hundreds of hours with the Doors’ producer Paul A. Rothchild, who related “anecdotes, stories, tragic moments, humorous moments, how Jim thought and his interpretation of Jim’s lyrics”. Rothchild also took Kilmer into the studio and helped him with “some pronunciations, idiomatic things that Jim would do that made the song sound like Jim”. Kilmer also met with Krieger and Densmore but Manzarek refused to talk to him. When The Doors heard Kilmer singing they could not tell whether the voice was Kilmer’s or Morrison’s. 

Stone had auditioned approximately 60 actresses for the role of Pamela Courson. The role required nudity and the script had sex scenes, which generated a fair amount of controversy. Casting director Risa Bramon felt that Patricia Arquette auditioned very well and should have gotten the role. To prepare for her role, Meg Ryan talked to the Coursons and people that knew Pamela. Before doing the film, Meg Ryan was not familiar with Jim Morrison and “only liked a few songs”, with Ryan adding: “I had to reexamine all my beliefs about the 1960s in order to do this movie”. While doing her research, she also encountered several conflicting views of Pamela. 

Guitarist Robby Krieger acted as a technical advisor on the film to show his cinematic alter ego, actor Frank Whaley in where to put his fingers on the guitar fretboard during the mimed performance sequences. Similarly, Densmore also acted as a consultant on the film in tutoring actor Kevin Dillon.

Equipped with a budget of $32 million. “The Doors” was filmed over 13 weeks, predominantly in and around Los Angeles, Paris, New York City and the Mojave Desert. Stone originally hired singer and choreographer Paula Abdul to choreograph the film’s concert scenes, who dropped out of the project because she did not understand Morrison’s on-stage actions and was not familiar with the time period. Abdul recommended Bill and Jacqui Landrum, who watched hours of concert footage before working with Kilmer and got him to do dance exercises to loosen up his upper body and to do jumping routines to develop his stamina.

During the concert scenes, Kilmer did his own singing, performing over The Doors master tapes without Morrison’s lead vocals, avoiding lip-synching. Kilmer’s endurance was put to the test during the concert sequences, which took several days to film, with Oliver Stone stating “his voice would start to deteriorate after two or three takes. We had to take that into consideration”. One sequence, filmed inside the Whisky a Go Go, proved to be more difficult than others due to all the smoke and sweat, a result of the body heat and intense camera lights. “The End” sequence took five days to shoot, spanning 24 takes for Stone to get what he wanted, after which Kilmer had become completely exhausted.

Controversy had arose during filming when a memo linked to Kilmer circulated among the cast and crew, listing rules of how the actor was to be treated for the duration of principal photography. These provisions forbade people to approach him on set without good reason, address him by his own name while he was in character or stare at him on set. An upset Oliver Stone contacted Kilmer’s agent and the actor claimed it was all a huge misunderstanding and that the memo was meant for his own people and not the film crew. 

“The Doors” had only made a $2 million profit by grossing $34 million worldwide against its $32 million production budget. In April 2019, a new restored and re-edited version of the film was released that Oliver Stone labeled “The Final Cut”. Stone says “This brand-new 4K restoration of ‘The Doors’ in Dolby Atmos will provide far greater overall clarity and dimension for the audience. During the many concert sequences, the sound now fills the auditorium above the audience, behind it and all points in between. I wanted the film to be as immersive as possible to a real ‘60s Doors experience. Additionally, I’ve made one cut of three minutes to a scene I thought was superfluous to the ending, which helps close out the film in a more powerful way”. The Final Cut was selected to be shown at the Cannes Classics section at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival. That restored final cut version was also released on Blu Ray and 4K Ultra HD, presented in Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos, which Stone said “would offer a new level of experience of the movie”.

While the movie itself is a true experience. It’s difficult not to rave about how Jim Morrison is played with an uncanny authenticity by Val Kilmer (how he was never nominated for an Oscar blows my mind). His performance is utterly convincing and can be a valid argument to state that this is one of Kilmer’s and if not best roles. Kilmer embodies Morrison to such an extent that it is easy to lose sight of the fact that he is an actor portraying a dynamic figure and simply gives us a vision of Morrison.

Oliver Stone is not the most subtle of directors and he probably never will be, but he has an ability to translate his passion for whatever subject matter he’s bringing to the screen with a strong visual flair. That Oliver Stone talent in once again on evidence here. Stone uses the full CinemaScope frame to create a psychedelic visual style and keeps it going for a movie that runs well over two hours (2 hours 21 minutes). It’s remarkably light on its feet and it doesn’t drag the audience down even when the potentially grim finale is leavened with just the right sly touch by Oliver Stone.

The 25 songs in the film by The Doors, stretch all the way from the first album’s break through single “Break on Through” to the swaggering and smoky swan song of “L.A. Woman” and everything in between to become the movie’s connecting tissue and structural key. Thankfully after 30 years no one has yet attempted another Doors biopic, nor has anyone dared to rival Val Kilmer’s performance as Morrison. Stone’s film is one hell of a ride and still remains that real roaring rock movie that he had always set out to make. 

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About Aron Medeiros

Aron Medeiros
Aron Medeiros is the movie critic for Maui Watch. He lives on the beautiful island of Maui and is also a member of the elite Hawaii Film Critics Society and an active cast member of the NerdWatch pod cast. He is a 2003 graduate from King Kekaulike High School. His favorite film of all time is “Back To The Future”. He has worked at Consolidated Kaahumanu Theaters for nearly 13 years as a Sales Associate and making his way up to Assistant Manager. He has loved movies since he was a young boy, where his Grandfather started his love for the movies.

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