By Marie-Renee Goulet
By far, one of the best Rock and Roll biographical movies ever made.
“I think of myself as an intelligent, sensitive human being with the soul of a clown which always forces me to blow it at the most important moments.” – Jim Morrison
Fresh off the success of Platoon (1986), Wall Street (1987), and Born on the Fourth of July (1989), Oliver Stone brought us the story of The Doors. Stone enlisted in the United States Army in April 1967. He served in Vietnam from September 1967 to April 1968, where he heard the Doors for the first time. Upon his return, he wrote a script and sent it to Jim Morrison. It was titled ‘Break’ at the time (which later became Platoon). Stone thought Jim could play the soldier, Stone’s character. He never heard back, but in 1990, Bill Siddons’ wife went to meet with Stone (Bill Siddons was a manager and close friend to The Doors), and she handed him back the script. Bill had gone to Paris the week of Jim’s death to collect his items, and the script was still in his possession. (1)
The Doors is a realistic look into the mesmerizing downward spiral of a creative genius. The movie is incredibly effective at recreating the 60’s and telling the story of The Doors’ career as history unfolded: Vietnam War escalation, the assassinations of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr, and Robert F. Kennedy and the Manson family rampage. You are also reminded of just how many good songs this group produced in a brief period. I thought a few aspects of Jim Morrison’s personality and life were missing. This could be attributed to cramping a lifetime and a 6-year career in a two-hour intelligible film. Some characters are a combination of three different people, and some scenes were invented to communicate a situation challenging to represent otherwise. Stone uses the Shaman mythology around Jim to weave the story together, and with years of hindsight, I am not convinced it was the best vehicle. In any case, this movie is worth seeing for Val Kilmer’s performance alone.
Please allow me to begin with some context.
“Whoever controls the media, controls the mind”- Jim Morrison.
I still remember the first time I laid eyes on Jim Morrison. It was 1987, and I was watching The Lost Boys. When the lead vampire, played by Kiefer Sutherland, brings Jason Patrick’s character back to their lair, there is a large Jim Morrison poster in the background. I vividly remember rewinding and pausing to get an extended look. This is how compelling Joel Brodsky’s 1967 photographs of Jim were. Who is he?
This is a man who died years before I was born. He didn’t look like he was of my parents’ generation. Once I heard Jim’s voice and read his words, that was it. I have since read many of the various existing biographies written about Morrison, by band members, journalists, or his entourage. My opinion: Jim Morrison did not want to be known. Don’t get me wrong, he successfully developed an image, spoke the one-liner hooks he knew the media would grasp. He wanted success and had something pertinent to say. But he was also very secretive about himself. He famously declared that his parents were dead in his first bio (his mom passed in 2005 aged 85 and his father died in 2008 at age 89). His last reported contact with his parents was in 1964 (2). His estrangement from the family might have been because he needed a complete break to be free as an artist, or it could be that he knew the type of career he would have and tried to protect his parents and siblings from the media.
I think that whoever spent time with Jim believed they knew him well, but I also think they only saw what he wanted to share at any given time. Therefore, the movie feels like a mosaic missing a few tiles.
“Let’s just say I was testing the bounds of reality. I was curious to see what would happen. That’s all it was: just curiosity.” – Jim Morrison
Tested in his senior year of high school, Jim had a high I.Q. of 149. The average I.Q. score on the intelligence test is 100. Jim’s adolescent bedroom was walled by books from Kerouac, Rimbaud, Molière, Baudelaire, Nietzsche, and others. ‘”Deucalion Gregory was Jim’s English teacher. He said, ‘Jim read as much and probably more than any other student in class. His work was excellent. But everything he read was so completely off-beat. I had another teacher who was going to the Library of Congress check to see if the books Jim was reporting on actually existed or he was making it up. English books on sixteenth and seventeenth-century demonology. I’ve never heard of them, but they existed, and I’m convinced from the paper he wrote that he read them, and if he read them, the Library of Congress would’ve been the only source. Other kids were reading authors represented in our anthology, and Jim was reading Burton’s studies of Arab sexuality, which I didn’t even know were in print. He read that kind of book and handled it beautifully in his written work (3). Being the smartest person in the room most of the time must be difficult. Consistently bored out of his mind, he was constantly misbehaving, testing every limit, and playing games. When a girlfriend asked him why, he said: “You’d never stay interested in me if I didn’t.” (3) The performance aspect of his life started early.
“There are things known, and there are things unknown and in between are the doors.” – Jim Morrison
Morrison chose the band’s name after reading Aldous Huxley’s “The Doors of Perception”, and initially, their use of drugs was to expend their mind, not to get high. But Morrison was excessive, self-destructive, and had no impulse control when he drank. I hope anyone who will see this movie for the first time or again will keep this in mind: The film shows Jim to be a mean, self-indulgent raging alcoholic. All true. But as former band members and other friends were quick to point out, he was also charming, witty, intelligent, articulate, and he had a sense of humour about himself. I spent many hours listening to interviews now available on YouTube, and I find him to be patient with intrusive or rude questions, self-aware, poised, and to be soft-spoken with a gentle laugh. He takes his time to answer questions and politely deflects when he clearly doesn’t want to answer.
He was business savvy. He was a teenager when Rock and Roll was born, and he studied Frank Sinatra and Elvis’ crooning and took it up a notch. Where the former gents appeared on TV in Tuxedos in the 60’s, Morrison arrived on Ed Sullivan in tight leather pants without underwear and refused to censor his song. He could croon with the best of them and I would venture that Elvis showing up in all leathers for his 1968 comeback special was no coincidence. Jim also predicted the birth of a new music genre decades before it existed. Here is an excerpt from a Rolling Stone 1969 interview: ‘“A lot of people like Mozart were prodigies; they were writing brilliant works at very young ages,” he said, musing on the future of music.“That’s probably what’s going to happen: some brilliant kid will come along and be popular. I can see a lone artist with a lot of tapes and electrical … like an extension of the Moog synthesizer — a keyboard with the complexity and richness of a whole orchestra, y’ know?” And he correctly predicted that these would not be sit down concert. I don’t know anything about Techno or House D.J.’s, but I would say Jim was about 25 years ahead of the times.
Also missing from the film is the political and courageous statement The Doors made with the Unknown Soldier, a clear reaction to the Vietnam War. It was a bold statement to make, especially when you already are in Richard Nixon’s administration crosshairs and monitored by the FBI.
As for Jim’s marked change of temperament when he drank, the man known as the fifth member of the Doors, Paul Rothchild (played by Michael Wincott in the film), who produced all but their last album had a theory about Jim’s drinking. He said, “Medicine has recently discovered there’s a certain kind of belligerent drunk, an overwhelming majority of whom are suffering from an enzyme deficiency and their bodies are able to absorb more than the usual one ounce of alcohol per hour. So they sit around a bar and as their friends get drunk, they don’t, until all of a sudden they’ve consumed enough to become schizoid. They move from not drunk at all to very crazy drunk. With the right kind of pill, these people can drink like everybody else. But Jim didn’t know about this. It wasn’t discovered then. Jim must’ve had an improper enzyme balance. He was the classic example, the storybook case of this type of belligerent drunk.” (4) It is difficult to be in the orbit of a self-destructive person especially when you love them. As flawed as he was, he had integrity as an artist and wasn’t in it purely for financial gain. He never cared about the money. Between 1965 and 1971, Jim wrote a hundred songs, recorded seven platinum albums, wrote and published four editions of poems, made three films, recorded poetry, wrote screenplays and play two hundred concerts (5). He must have had some extended period of sober creativity and productivity, but you wouldn’t know that from the film.
Where are the artists in 2020? This year is turning out to be a mix of 1918 (pandemic), 1929 (financial crash), and 1968 (civil unrest) all rolled up into one. Where the hell is everybody? Who uses their voice and platform to the peril of their comfort and popularity, calling out either the US or Canadian administrations? Posting a black frame on Instagram does not count. For the past four years, Neil Young is accepting licensing fees from Donald Trump so he can play “Rockin in a Free World” at his repulsive rallies. Really? Tweeting an insult at the President while allowing your song to play in those circumstances isn’t enough. Only on July 27, 2020, did Mr. Young said he was “reconsidering” suing for the misuse of his song. There is a scene in the movie where The Doors would have sold the rights to “Light My Fire” for a commercial – this never happened (they received the offer, but Jim didn’t approve), and there have been years of litigation since Jim died to protect the legacy of the songs and prevents commercial interests to prevail.
“I think Val Kilmer should have been nominated for an Oscar. He gave me the creeps on the set – he was so close to Jim.” – John Densmore
I also remember the first time I ever saw Val Kilmer. I was about ten years old when I saw Top Secret (1984), a spy spoof movie in which he plays Elvis. He could sing, dance, do physical comedy, and his delivery of hilarious deadpan lines was bang-on. He would again play Elvis as ‘Mentor’ in True Romance (1993). I rarely spend a lot of time writing about a single performance, but Val is exceptional as Jim Morrison. There was a long list of actors who wanted this part, and I cannot imagine even one of them coming as close to Jim Morrison as Kilmer does. He looks like Jim, he speaks and sings like Jim, and he moves like Jim. He is in every scene and over a 65-day shoot, went from a skinny fresh-faced 20-year-old to a tired, run-down, depressed fading rock star. His singing is so good that he fooled Oliver Stone and the surviving members of The Doors. He worked with Paul Rothchild, who played tracks sang either by Kilmer or Morrison to the former band members, and they guessed wrong 80% of the time. He sings every song live in the film. Kilmer can sing at every stage of Morrison’s life, even the gravely whiskey voice after seven years of heavy smoking, drinking, and 200 concerts. Keep in mind, the only person, The Doors, felt could fill in for Jim when they were inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to sing three songs was Eddie Vedder, another powerful baritone. Kilmer did something few could have done. He should have been nominated for an Oscar. I am glad Mr. Kilmer has this performance forever preserved on film, given the loss of his voice to throat cancer. He seems to have fully recovered, and I am looking forward to seeing him again soon as Iceman in Top Gun Maverick – if it ever comes out.
Unfortunately, the script did not give Kilmer opportunities to play some of the nuances in character mentioned above. I remember reading that Kilmer had insisted with Stone to include scenes that showed how Jim was a poet, and I am glad he did.
The surviving members of The Doors participated in the project. Ray Manzarek is well played by Kyle MacLachlan, John Densmore, by Kevin Dillon and Robby Krieger by Frank Whaley, and all have worked with The Doors musicians to learn to play their instruments and are true to their character. Crispin Glover does a wonderful turn as Andy Warhol. I am not an Oliver Stone expert, but I don’t think he has directed many strong women characters. Women in his movies mostly exist to serve the plot around the men. It’s no different here as Meg Ryan is not given much of anything to do. In life, Pamela Courson was a strong presence in Jim Morrison’s life. Here she is reduced to a doormat.
John Densmore makes a touching cameo as the engineer of the last session of Jim recording his poetry, which would later be released as An American Prayer. Other notable cameos: Billy Idol and Oliver Stone as the UCLA Film Professor.
“Can you give me sanctuary
I must find a place to hide
A place for me to hide
Can you find me soft asylum
I can’t make it anymore
The Man is at the door” – Jim Morrison
If you read “Heavier than Heaven” on Kurt Cobain or “Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley”, there is a recurring scene, and it is heartbreaking: everyone knows the end is near but keeping the money machine going or trying to stay in the tent wins. Jim was clear: “I am having a nervous breakdown, and I want to quit.” The reaction was: 6 more months! Let’s record everything we can cause he’s not going to live much longer. Of course, regrets were expressed later. Would an intervention have worked? It didn’t work for Kurt Cobain.
How did Jim Morrison die? We’ll never know. The only witnesses to his body are Pam, who didn’t report the death to the US Embassy for four days, a friend and maybe the person who sold Pam heroin. All accounts of what happened are unreliable. The first responders didn’t know who he was. Pamela Courson changed her story multiple times in the days and years following Jim’s passing. She convinced the coroner no drugs were involved, so there was no inquiry. The death was ruled natural causes, and Jim was buried without an autopsy before the news even came out that Jim Morrison, lead singer of one of the biggest bands on the planet, was dead. The movie shows the most sanitized version, which was: Pamela wakes up to find that Jim is not in bed, goes to the bathroom and finds him in the tub. It likely wasn’t Stone choice. Even if Jim wrote about 80% of the songs, he insisted that all rights be equally divided among the four band members and that all decisions be unanimous. When Jim died, Pamela was his sole heir. I can’t know this for sure, but the figure that comes back most often is $400,000 cash assets in 1971, which is about $2.5MM today. More valuable was his 25% share of the copyrights to the Doors catalog. According to the Recording Industry Association of America, they have sold 33 million records in the U.S. and over 100 million records worldwide. Jim left his entire estate to Pamela, who died of a heroin overdose without a will in 1974. After much litigation, the Morrisons and the Coursons agreed to split the assets 50-50, but the Coursons held on to the copyrights. One of the conditions to Oliver Stone being able to use the music for the feature film was likely that their daughter could not be negatively represented or infer in any way that Pamela might have been, in part, responsible for Jim’s death. One of the likely scenarios that came out over the years was that despite all Jim’s excess, he hated heroin and did not want it around them. Pamela was a heroin addict by 1971. Jim would have found the white powder, and to avoid getting in a fight, Pam would have lied and said it was just cocaine, which Jim quickly put up his nose and overdosed. At the time, placing a person overdosing in a cold bath was thought to be effective in reviving them. In the end, all of it is conjecture, and Jim’s excesses were his demise, and no one else is to blame. This is a man who began his career by singing “The End”, a song hauntingly used in the opening sequence of Apocalypse Now (1979).
“No more money, no more fancy dress
This other Kingdom seems by far the best until its other jaw reveals incest & loose obedience to a vegetable law
I will not go
Prefer a Feast of Friends
To the Giant family” – Jim Morrison
Next July, Jim Morrison will have been dead for 50 years. Let’s remember who Jim’s contemporaries are: Mick Jagger, Robert De Niro, Harrison Ford, Joe Pesci, Raquel Welch, Jessica Lange, Al Pacino, Steven Spielberg. Even Oliver Stone. Jim Morrison was a graduate of UCLA, where he sat next to Francis Ford Coppola. Now think of the body of work that was accomplished by this crowd since 1971. I think The Doors were done after L.A. Woman. It would have been their last album for a while, at least. But I don’t think Jim was done with his art. He may have become a screenwriter and movie director. Looking at his publicity picture from 1967 side by side to one of the last known images of him in a Paris Café, it is hard to believe that only four years had elapsed. He packed a lot of living in his 27 years.
I’ll let Jim have the last word: “It’s so eternal. As long as there are people, they can remember words and combinations of words. Nothing else can survive a holocaust, but poetry and songs.”
(1) Kevin EG Perry, NME Oliver Stone interview July 2019
(2) Stephen Davis, Jim Morrison Life. Death. Legend. Gotham Books, USA. 2004
(3) Hopkins, Jerry. The Lizard King, The Essential Jim Morrison. Plexus, London Plexus Publishing Ltd. Third Edition October 2014
(4) Hopkins, Jerry. The Lizard King, The Essential Jim Morrison. Plexus, London Plexus Publishing Ltd. Third Edition October 2014
(5) Stephen Davis, Jim Morrison Life. Death. Legend. Gotham Books USA. 2004
Marie’s appreciation for movies & TV began early in life as it offered escapes, laughter, and often an education. It sparked a love of photography, travel, and a general curiosity for the world and everything in it. Originally from Quebec City, she graduated Summa Cum Laude from Trebas Institute in 1998 where John H. Foote was her Film History professor. The winds pushed her into a different professional field and on a few adventures around the world. The passion for film and storytelling in all forms continues. Marie lives in the Canadian Rockies.