Does the palace of wisdom really lie beyond the road of excess? In "The Doors" (citywide), writer-director Oliver Stone plays with that proposition, flaunts it. In this sometimes terrific, incendiary movie bio of Jim Morrison--lead singer of the rock band whose eerie, carnivalesque music and poetic or raunchy lyrics summed up the '60s--Stone is going for more than a period piece. He tries to pluck out the fruits of paradise and a season in hell.
As in "Born on the Fourth of July" or "Platoon," Stone wants to detonate his subject before our eyes. He wants to put us right in the hot core of the action, yet also lyricize it, give it a stylized framework. Stone uses the Doors' music as a constant choral commentary. The 25 Doors songs, stretching all the way from the first album's battering "Break on Through" to the swaggering, smoky swan song of "L.A. Woman," become the movie's connecting tissue and structural key.
Those songs, all done by the Doors, with added vocals by star Val Kilmer, carry us through Morrison's childhood, his Venice Beach meeting with soulmate Pam Courson, the band's formation, sudden notoriety and success, and the slide through alcoholism and rebellion to early death in Paris and final cultural martyrdom. In a way, Morrison becomes the music's puppet, twitching on its strings, "dancing on fire as it intends."
It's ironic, because one of this film's primary subjects is freedom: liberation as perceived by some during the Vietnam War years. Yet the freedom here is often illusory or double-edged. Every protestation of peace or love is colored by violence. We see Morrison plunging through an orgy of promiscuous sex, ledge-hanging, LSD, booze, cocaine and (possibly) heroin that never leaves him satisfied.
He is an impotent Dionysus, too smashed to swing, a poet who is blowing it. The movie keeps suggesting that his only real freedom lies in the relatively few moments he is working with the band. And it suggests also that what saves him, gives him grace, is the instinctive hatred of authority that leads him into one public revolt after another: some ridiculous, some sublime.
Even at the movie's orgiastic high point--a splendid, horrific re-creation of the Dade County, Fla., concert at which Morrison allegedly exposed himself--the wild abandon is always circumscribed, bound up in the drumbeats. The vast writhing torrent of an audience that faces Kilmer's Morrison as he tears into the Doors' scariest number, "Five to One," is swimming in gouts of fire, awash in a blaze of red, almost resembling something out of Bosch's hell.
The whole movie is white hot, lapped in honeyed golds, evilly blue and black or drenched in those swoony, fiery reds. "The Doors" blasts your ears and scorches your eyes. Stone's cinematographer Robert Richardson and production designer Barbara Ling have obviously had a field day. Stone detractors who believe he's always trying to hammer his audience into submission may have a field day too.
But there's a time and place for gentility and this film is not really a true psychological portrait. It's more a mosaic of the '60s, an impressionistic rock fresco.
Stone has chosen his cast amazingly well. Kilmer's Morrison is a visual triumph and the actor pulls a "Raging Bull"-style metamorphosis from pouty acid Adonis to booze-belly drunk with oddly tender panache. Almost equally impressive are Crispin Glover's two deliciously hesitant and softly deranged minutes as Andy Warhol, and Kathleen Quinlan puts some witchy hauteur into British pop critic Patricia Kennealy.
As for the rest of the band, Kyle MacLachlan catches keyboardist Ray Manzarek's hyper-intellectual whimsy, Kevin Dillon is brusque and on-the-button as drummer John Densmore, and Frank Whaley, as guitarist Robby Krieger, has an ethereal, frightened frazzled-fawn look. But the movie, after establishing the other Doors well, closes them down, closes out most of the other characters--except for Morrison and, to a degree, his red-haired, tense paramour, Pam (Meg Ryan).
Kilmer's Morrison becomes the ultimate narcissist. He never seems to work hard. Poetry and song, rebellion and carnality just pour out of him. It's obvious that Morrison is, to some degree, a great fantasy figure for Oliver Stone--a model of sex, artistry, politics and self-destruction rolled into one--and perhaps that makes him go relatively easy. Stone doesn't stint on the story's scandal, but he tends to downplay a side of the Doors leader often written about: a streak of mean, roughneck pranksterism and humor, mock machismo. Suggestively, that's what Stone sometimes is accused of himself.
The movie's major weakness is its portrayal of love--and, mostly, of Jim and Pam. Ryan, an often wonderful actress, gets an intriguing mix of vulnerability and rage into fragile-looking Pam, but there's only one scene in the movie that really lets her stretch: a big blowout of a sabotaged party where she digs out the crazy comedy, biting off one line that should bring down every decently vulgar house in the land.
"The Doors" probably won't appeal to anyone who doesn't have instinctive sympathy for the band and its myths. In a way, this movie is a big expensive trap, but Stone slips it, partially, because he loves Morrison, partially because he loves moviemaking. And, in the end, there's one way in which Stone is like his youthful idol.
Like Morrison, Stone is not quite the avant-garde artist he envisions himself being; he has a higher talent for mastering popular art and the system, while smashing or scorning its laws and dodges. Stone isn't immaculate, and neither is "The Doors" (rated R for everything you can think of). But it's one hell of a ride and a real, roaring rock movie.
Val Kilmer: Jim Morrison
Meg Ryan: Pamela Courson
Kyle MacLachlan: Ray Manzarek
Frank Whaley: Robby Krieger
Kevin Dillon: John Densmore
A Mario Kassar presentation of a Sasha Harari/Bill Graham/Imagine Entertainment production, released by Tri-Star Pictures. Director Oliver Stone. Producers Bill Graham, Sasha Harari, A. Kitman Ho. Executive producers Mario Kassar, Nicholas Klainos, Brian Grazer. Screenplay by Stone, A. Randal Johnson. Cinematographer Robert Richardson. Editor David Brenner, Joe Hutshing. Costumes Marlene Stewart. Music The Doors. Music producer Paul Rothchild. Production design Barbara Ling. Art director Larry Fulton. Set decorator Cricket Rowland. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.
MPAA-rated: R (Sex, nudity, language, violence).