The Doors (1991) ★★★★

By Inayah Inam

This July marked the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Jim Morrison – the enigmatic frontman of the iconic sixties psychedelic band The Doors. Other than seeing it appear on my Netflix suggested a couple of months ago, I hadn’t listened to or known much about the dead singer, who was a member of the infamous 27 club and died in his bathtub in Paris. One Sunday, I decided to switch on the Oliver Stone-directed biopic, a quasi-love letter and elegy for the fallen ‘Lizard King’ played by the recently re-appeared Val Kilmer (please see “Val” on Amazon prime). The film delivers on its promises of a great soundtrack, a performance of a leading actor at his peak, and sympathetic critique of fame and psychedelic excess. Slightly veering into pretentious retellings of infamous Morrision escapades (which still garner interest) and Stone’s own dramatic licence for re-fashioning the ‘meet cute’ between Pamela Courson and Morrision, the film succeeds in truly making you feel right at the centre of 1960s counterculture. 

Kilmer’s laconic performance and soulful approach to the spoken word singer-poet is committed and he methodically adopts the singer’s physicality. Kilmer sways, thrusts, and dances madly on stage while Stone lyrically cuts in a recurring motif of a Native American chief whom Morrision described seeing as a child. This formative experience of Morrison has drawn ire, naturally because it indulges in problematic ideas around Western mysticism, Indian shamanism and the exoticism of ‘the Other’. Nowadays Jim Morrision would probably be described as ‘woke’.

I wish Stone elaborated more on Morrison’s family. Being the son of a Navy admiral whose existence he denied is briefly touched on in one of my favourite scenes. Patricia Kennealy (played by Kathleen Quinlan) breaks the bad news to him that she knows his true background: “It’s all in ‘The End’” she says – the 11:41 minute gothic rock song in which Morrision famously screams “kill the father, fuck the mother”. Morrison replies “they don’t want me, they want my death”.  Stone saw Morrison as someone “running to his death” and he can ultimately be forgiven for overlooking the role of Jimmy’s family for the carnal self-destructive haze of concerts and women before his abridged end. 

Stone and Kilmer both explore Morrison’s psyche – his willful rebelliousness when he ignores the producer’s request during the band’s performance of “Light my Fire” on the Ed Sullivan show. This peaks during Kilmer’s recreation of the infamous Miami, Florida concert of March 1970 where Morrision was subsequently charged with public indecency. Although some elements can be described as drug-fueled cinematic overkill (there is a very graphic fellatio scene between Morrsion and Nico in an elevator at one point), it nevertheless feels authentic to the hedonistic ambience that surrounds Jim. 

The film endures as an engaging portrait of a man victim to his own personal demons as well as the demons of the decade. Outcast, disowned by much of the industry by the 1970s after his public indecency trial, Morrision attempted to take on the role as an American in Paris, but he did not return to his homeland. This is truly Stone’s playground and his editing throughout the film carries a mystical premonition-like quality. Even though we know how it’ll end for Jimmy, it’s not until the final scene that the movie feels shockingly tragic. Fittingly Stone bookends the film with the same frame of Jim staring into space – still and timeless just like his music. Morrison, despite his vices, was a true visionary – both a shaman and a rockstar, a true Kantian cowboy of the West. 

I also took the film to become more acquainted with The Doors and their music. I’ve linked my spotify playlist if you too decide to check some of their tracks out. 

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