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THE DOORS:  SPECIAL EDITION

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Val Kilmer, Meg Ryan, Kevin Dillon, Kyle MacLachlan, Frank Whaley, Kathleen Quinlan
Director:  Oliver Stone
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  Artisan
Features:  See Review
Length:  138 Minutes
Release Date:  February 20, 2001

Film ***

“Did you have a good world when you died, enough to base a movie on?”

I can still remember being more excited about Oliver Stone’s film The Doors than just about any movie release in my life.  Although they were technically before my time, I discovered the music of the Doors and the poetry of Jim Morrison during my adolescence, and found both to be the perfect backdrop to my growing up.  I felt a strange kinship to the man, not so much because of his rock stardom or his famed excesses with drugs and alcohol, but because of his literary mind.  I was on my way to becoming an English major, and to read his poetry and to learn about the vast amount of books he had read and his incredible knowledge for literature made Jim Morrison into something more than just another rock icon for me.

And Oliver Stone, a professed fan who discovered the band’s music during his youthful tour in Vietnam, seemed like the perfect filmmaker to bring their story to the screen, if there was such a thing.  Stone had proven an ability in his body of work not to report, but to express, and his visual flair combined with the otherworldly music of the Doors seemed a can’t miss proposition. 

“Let me tell you about heartache and the loss of God…”

Of course, such an undertaking would not be easy.  The project was met initially by the surviving group members with apprehension at best.  Though all three would eventually agree to allow Stone the rights to produce his film, it’s become a cornerstone of vehement controversy over the years, particularly between him and keyboardist Ray Manzarek.  In his autobiography, Light My Fire, Manzarek doesn’t miss an opportunity to spew venom Stone’s way about his treatment of the Doors and Morrison.  He’s quick to point out every disagreement, every inaccuracy, and ever overdose of creative license used in the film.  Now, with the commentary track on this DVD, Stone gets his chance to fire a few shots back at him, calling him “squarish” and daring him to prove certain scenes were not correct.  Both drummer John Densmore and Robby Krieger lent their aid to the film, though it’s difficult to pinpoint where they stand on it now.  Both seemed to join Manzarek in dismissing the movie on their group commentary for The Doors:  Special Edition music video DVD.  Then again, Robby appears in the featurette on this disc to offer his thoughts.

Amusingly, John Densmore wrote his book Riders on the Storm prior to the beginning of the movie, and in  his final chapter, he contemplates his worries about such a film, stating that he knew that any filmmaker would have to condense many years of their life and work into two and a half hours, then blow it up to the size of a hundred story building.  Yet Riders became a principle screenplay source for the film.

Others who continue to express hostility toward the film:  Patricia Kennealy, the self-proclaimed witch who claims to have cursed the project because of the way Stone had her portrayed in the film (as performed by Kathleen Quinlan).  The parents of Pamela Courson, who apparently were a thorn in Stone’s side from day one about the way their daughter was portrayed, forcing him to omit certain truths like it was her that introduced Jim to heroin.  And many others who knew Jim, claiming the film only focused on his reputation for wildness, and didn’t really capture his sweeter side that made everyone like him.

“Indians scattered on dawn’s highway, bleeding…ghosts crowd the young child’s fragile eggshell mind.”

The legend of Jim, by his own account, occurred when he was about five years old, riding with his parents through the desert when they came upon an overturned truck.  The passengers, American Indian workers, were all either hurt, dying, or already dead.  Jim claimed he felt the soul of one or more of those Indians leap into his body, beginning his lifetime’s leanings towards the supernatural and the idea of the shaman, or medicine man, of the group.

When he grows up, Jim (Kilmer, in an electrifying portrayal) moves to Los Angeles, where he meets up with his on again, off again girlfriend Pam (Ryan), and a fellow film student, Ray (MacLachlan).  One inspires his creativity, the other helps him channel it.  Soon, with the addition of two more musicians, Robbie (Whaley) and Densmore (Dillon), the Doors are born, and poised to take over the California music scene.

In the age of flower power and love-your-neighbor sentiment, the Doors descended like a dark cloud upon American culture.  These were not the safe, happy, FM friendly songs that had dominated the airwaves through the early 60’s.  This was a somber, contemplative music made heavy by Ray’s mournful organ, Robby’s shrieking bottleneck guitar and John’s interpretive pounding.  All of this was done to accent the lyrics of Jim, who wasn’t afraid to sing about death, pain, loss of innocence or breaking on through to the other side.

But for Jim, it wasn’t an artificial lifestyle, or something he wore like a costume that he could take off and laugh about at the end of the day.  His work was personal, and reflected his own attitudes about excess and monstrosity.  The same intellectual curiosity that drove his poetry also drove him to take drugs and consume alcohol in quantities that amazed even the most hardened substance abusers.  He lived his life like he knew death was always around the corner, waiting for him, and he left the light on and the door open for that dark visitor.

The Doors rode the crest of their success for as long as they could, but it began to come apart under the same force that brought them together…Jim’s excesses. 

“Blood on the streets in the town of New Haven…”

Some say the beginning of the end was their concert in New Haven, Connecticut:  after a scuffle backstage with a cop who didn’t recognize him, Jim got an eyeful of mace just before the show.  Later, during the concert, he began purposely taunting the police who were working the venue as security guards.  After the cops had all they could stand, they ended the show, and pulled Morrison off the stage and straight to jail.  It was the first of Jim’s legal troubles, but it wouldn’t be the last, nor the most famous.

“Your ballroom days are over, baby…”

The real beginning of the end occurred in Miami.  The concert audience was already restless to the point of distraction because Jim was a few hours late to the show.  When he arrived, he was under some pretty heavy influences.  He stopped the show and taunted the crowd into a near riot, and was later accused of exposing himself on stage.  On the basis of a small number of questionable witnesses, but mainly by a society who’d had enough of Jim and the Doors, he was convicted.  The appeals processes were still lingering on at the time of his death.

“Wake up, girl.  We’re almost home.”

The Doors never fully recovered from that blow.  Faced with concert cancellations, a hateful music press, no invitation to Woodstock and the growing strife within the band, the four members would begin their separate journeys, though, ironically, they recorded one of their greatest albums during that time, L.A. Woman.  Jim would move to Paris to try to find anonymity enough to concentrate on his poetry.  He would be dead a year later at the age of 27.

Stone’s movie touches on all of this, with a sense of accuracy and authenticity.  I don’t think the quibbles about the film are in the large details, but with the interpretive manner in which he filled in the gaps.  Stone has always been a master of putting his feelings on screen with a minimum of subtlety, and as for me, I’ve never chosen to watch this film as a biography.  I watch it as a testament by Oliver Stone as to what the Doors’ music meant to him. 

Sure, there was more to Jim than what was captured between the sprocket holes here, and to be certain, there was much more to the other band members as well.  But like their music, this movie creates art out of a heightened sense of reality.  The lines blur, the facts cloud, the very lives get lost in some kind of effervescent haze of personal memory, but the reality here lies not in accountability, but in the strong doses of perception that taints our personal views of life.  In a way, I think Jim Morrison would be pleased…it’s a cinematic capturing of everything he stood for, while keeping him as enigmatic an icon as ever before.

Video **

I was hoping with this new release that Artisan would provide us with a better transfer than the original DVD put out by Live when they still existed as a company.  No such luck.  We still are deprived of an anamorphic transfer, and the video is still as flawed as before.  Colors are generally good, and strong, and very expressive, but the entire film suffers from softness and lack of detail.  The depth and spatial relationships within certain shots seem a bit hazy and lost, and other scenes suffer from lines and/or grain that distract.  Some of the desert scenes exhibit a bit of unnatural shimmer.  The disc is far from unwatchable, but unfortunately, it’s equally as far from reference quality.

Audio ***

The 5.1 surround really only comes to life during the concert scenes.  With them, you get a full, ambient range of sound from all speakers, and the subwoofer really adds bottom end to the music’s bass.  All of these sequences are real treats for fans, as they seem to capture the essence of a long gone band’s legendary live performances.  At other times, the audio is fine, with clear dialogue, but stays mostly forward staged, with so little activity from the rear channels that you’ll forget about them until the next musical number.

Features ****

This is one of Artisan’s best offerings so far.  On disc one, you get a commentary track by Oliver Stone…a little slow starting, and as usual with him, no real sense of beginning or ending, but as it goes along, he has plenty of good stories to tell and a lot of information (including, as mentioned, a dig or two at the project’s most vocal opponent, Ray Manzarek).  There is also a jump-to-a-song search feature.

Disc two contains the remaining supplements, including a terrific 43 minute documentary “The Road of Excess”, featuring interviews with Stone and his cast members, in addition to Robby Krieger and Patricia Kennealy.  There is also a five minute featurette, a teaser and trailer, production notes, talent files, and a Cinematographic Moments feature that delves into the movie’s unusual look and camera styles.  A terrific package!

Summary:

The Doors broke on through in many ways, and Oliver Stone’s film The Doors does its best to capture that essence expressively and musically.  While hardly a bio pic, and still drawing the ire of concerned parties almost a decade after its initial release, it remains an entertaining cinematic achievement that does a fine job of turning into visuals what the group did with sound.

“This is the …end…”