**/**** Image A- Sound A Extras C+
starring Val Kilmer, Meg Ryan, Kevin Dillon, Kathleen Quinlan
written by J. Randal Johnson and Oliver Stone
directed by Oliver Stone
by Bryant Frazer Oliver Stone's lofty take on California psychedelic rock band The Doors begins near the end, with a thickly bearded Jim Morrison--Val Kilmer, delivering a well-practiced but largely soulless imitation of the '60s cultural icon--slouched in a dark Los Angeles studio recording lines of spoken-word poetry. "Did you have a good world when you died?" he demands. "Enough to base a movie on?" The setting is December, 1970, a few months before Morrison voluntarily exiled himself in France--perhaps to dodge a potential prison sentence after his arrest for lewdness on stage--and a little more than six months before his death in Paris. Stone fills all of that in later, but he starts here, not just because the poem Morrison is reading, "The Movie," is too apropos for a filmmaker as literal-minded as Stone to resist, but also because Morrison's demonstrated preoccupation with death and storytelling dovetails so nicely with the film's manifestation of same. Stone includes a formative event from Morrison's early life: His family is driving through the desert when they pass the aftermath of a car accident where an elderly Navajo man is bleeding to death at the side of the road. Young Jim, rubbernecking, locks eyes for an instant with the Native American and, just like that, picks up a fellow traveller. Stone digs the idea. Throughout the film, he has Morrison seeing Native spirits at key moments, dancing at Doors performances, or lurking in the corners of parties. He also gives Morrison a stalker: a mysterious man (an uncredited Richard Rutowski, who later collaborated on the screenplay for Stone's Natural Born Killers), well-built and sometimes nude, who represents death and occasionally materializes at the periphery of the action, not unlike the reaper from Bergman's The Seventh Seal.
Over and over again, The Doors comes tantalizingly close to taking the piss out of Morrison and the legend of the Lizard King with a left turn into farce. There's the scene where Morrison indulges in a blood-sex ritual, crawling around naked on the floor with a journalist (Kathleen Quinlan) he's just met as "O Fortuna" from Orff's Carmina Burana plays on the soundtrack. ("You ever try drinking blood?" she asks. "What?" he responds.) Or the one where Morrison nearly murders girlfriend Pamela (Meg Ryan) by locking her in a closet and setting it afire. Or, hell, any of those moments where Morrison's imaginary shaman friend (Floyd Red Crow Westerman) makes a cameo appearance. He's there, for some reason, at the party where Morrison meets Andy Warhol (Crispin Glover). He's there when Morrison closes a performance of "Five to One" by shouting at the audience, "You're all a bunch of fuckin' slaves!" And he's there when Morrison finishes that last spoken-word recording session in L.A., drains a bottle of whisky, and suggests, "Let's get some tacos." Stone seems to be framing these instances as points of evolution for Morrison as an artist and a human, if not evidence that he had become a vessel for Native American spirits. I just kept hoping the old man would smack Jimbo upside the head.
Kilmer received many plaudits for his work here. I certainly appreciate the technical achievement--for most of the film's running time, Kilmer is a virtual ringer for Morrison, maybe most impressively on his re-recorded vocal tracks--but there's a certain vacuousness to the portrayal at odds with what's otherwise an encomium to Morrison's genius, and I wonder if it's deliberate. Where Morrison's sex appeal was wily and serpentine, Kilmer's is more often giddy, impetuous, even childish. There's a scene where Pamela accidentally stumbles into an elevator where Morrison's getting a blowjob, and his rapid-fire facial contortions run the gamut from naughty frat-boy to rock god to the dorkiest teenage virgin you can imagine in leather pants. It's like sex itself keeps catching him off guard. Speaking of Pamela, Ryan caught a raw deal with this movie, which she was clearly hoping would establish her cred as a serious actress; instead, she ended up in a cookie-cutter girlfriend role with nothing to do. The production was apparently limited as to what it could do with her character--the estate held the rights to Morrison's spoken-word poetry and would tolerate no stain on her memory. So, as scripted, The Doors has practically zero interest in anything about Pamela except the encouragement she gives Morrison early on and, later, her dogged resolve to stand by her man until the bitter end.
Stone seems bored, too, by any details of The Doors themselves beyond a few perky interjections from Kyle MacLachlan's Ray Manzarek, who functions as a gee-whiz cheerleader extolling Morrison's genius. Getting the band together, he says, "The planet is screaming for change, Morrison. We've got to make the myths!" When Jim suggests the group be called The Doors, citing William Blake's line about "if the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is--" Ray finishes the sentence: "Infinite! I like it!" The linchpin of the film's first act is the scene where Morrison takes his new pals into the desert for a peyote-fuelled trip. It features some interesting, pulsing visual composites that are unlike anything we see in these days of endless CG, and it ends with Morrison's premonition of his own death. Still, is there anything more dreary to watch than a bunch of dudes pretending to be high out of their minds to a soundtrack of churning psych rock?
The rest of the picture is disjointedly episodic in the way so many biopics are, moving methodically down a checklist of key events in Morrison's life. And yet when Stone cuts to a live concert scene where Morrison is swinging wildly on a rope above the stage, almost as if from a ballroom chandelier, the band rocking hard behind him, the film's mood goes electric. The Doors genuinely captures something of the energy and vitality of a live concert, a relative rarity even in actual concert films. A scene early on covers the night at the Whisky a Go Go club on Sunset Boulevard where Morrison rolled out the infamous Freudian monologue that climaxes "The End" for the very first time. As the story goes, it sprang fully formed from Morrison's head; the rest of the band didn't know what was coming and rose to the occasion. Manzarek wrote about it years later: "We shot our sonic wad out onto the heads of the collective and anointed the faithful with holy chrism." I don't know that Stone got that on camera, but he did manage to reclaim the live performance for history, dramatizing the moment where Morrison's lack of inhibition got the band banned (for a time) from the Whisky. Later, Stone shows how the ante was upped when Morrison was actually arrested on stage, or goaded his audience into a virtual riot at a massive outdoor San Francisco show in 1968, which Stone recreates at full scale, complete with bonfire and naked hippies, again conjuring the dangerous, anarchic spirit associated with those transformational days in rock-and-roll.
The throwback New York and L.A. street scenes feel especially luxe, more convincing in their period accuracy than the painted-in digital backgrounds you see in films today. Robert Richardson's diffuse cinematography lends itself well to the dreamy, time-tripping mood, and the sound work is phenomenal. Did I mention there's a scene where Kilmer and Quinlan get naked and drink their own blood while "O Fortuna"* plays on the soundtrack? Whether or not you buy into the legend of Mr. Mojo Risin' and his mind-expanding mysticism, the results are pretty entertaining--provided you've got the sound system and/or the mind-enhancing substances to throw them into focus. "I am the Lizard King--I can do anything!" Morrison declares from the stage at the end of a frenzied performance of "Not to Touch the Earth." At least The Doors, in all its bombast and inasmuch as it captures the mood of the moment, will help you understand why he feels that way.
THE 4K UHD DISC
The Doors was a dud on its initial release but has proven evergreen on home video, where it has an enduring appeal for the Morrison faithful, Doors neophytes, and 1960s culture vultures. The title hit Blu-ray back in 2008 and now, with the arrival of a new 4K restoration, Lionsgate passes the extra pixels on to consumers via a UHD BD upgrade with Dolby Vision and an accompanying Dolby Atmos remix. The original camera negative was scanned in 4K by Fotokem in Los Angeles, with the 16-bit files passed to L'Immagine Ritrovata in Bologna, Italy, for restoration. The results are what you'd hope for: an exceptionally film-like picture with a solid, organic grain structure and intense colours.
Oliver Stone is said to have "closely overseen" the colour-grading, and the results are relatively subtle as HDR grades go. You can see the difference in some of Richardson's characteristic lighting set-ups, where he top-lights certain areas to create overexposed hot spots that generate a soft halation effect as the light passes through filters on its way into the camera. While the effect is there in the HD version, Dolby Vision further defines the shape and intensity of the light, lending these shots a three-dimensionality. The film's numerous crowd scenes benefit from HDR enhancement, too, as the more precise treatment of light and shadow brings out depth and scale in a way that enhances a sense of presence in the room. Scenes of skin lit by red light that can break down in gradated artifacts at lower resolutions are simply silky here. The level of detail is respectably high, though it does dip in shots that are obviously part of optical processes. Best of all, the picture is smooth and cinematic, an improvement on the occasionally harsh, overprocessed look of the HD version. The only serious anomaly occurs a little more than 19 minutes into the feature, when a digital glitch shifts a cord hanging behind Kilmer's head a bit to the left for a couple of frames, like The Doors' beachfront rehearsal studio is about to enter the Matrix. It may have something to do with the grain in that part of the image interacting badly with dust-busting algorithms; whatever caused it, it should have been caught in QC. The picture is letterboxed at 2.35:1, and two different versions are on offer: the original theatrical cut, as well as a so-called "final cut" that elides a short scene close to the end of the film where Morrison ventures out through his Sunset Boulevard hotel-room window and Pamela follows him onto the ledge to try to coax him back inside.
The accompanying Dolby Atmos presentation is a formidable achievement. As I never saw The Doors theatrically, I can't say how the original soundmix, engineered for six-track 70mm, Dolby SR, and the then-new Cinema Digital Sound format by Wylie Stateman and Michael Minkler, compares to the new one, which used the 1991 mix as a starting point but expanded it to take advantage of the Atmos height channels. However, even delivered in its limited 7.1 configuration, it's exceptionally active and creative audio with unusually precise directionality. Take, for instance, the scene that begins with the camera tracking slowly from right to left, through the control room and into the recording studio, as the band performs "Light My Fire." The soundtrack changes as the camera moves through the room, first pushing the drums hard to the right surround as the camera passes the kit, then sending guitar and keyboard across the rear channels as Morrison/Kilmer's voice comes into focus dead centre. As the film segues to a San Francisco Summer of Love montage, the song continues to play in a standard surround mix that puts the viewer inside the band's performance. Then, with the transition to a live performance setting, the LFE channel thrums to life, giving the instruments added body on the low end along with a little reverb and a lot of ambiance and crowd noise. The trick is, the whole thing is executed in tandem with the picture so that you barely notice what's happening in your speakers as the movie unfolds in front of you. Though it's not expressly engineered to give your subwoofers a workout or freak out your cats, this is still impressive, immersive sound design--one of the best home theatre mixes I know of.
The UHD BD disc includes only three extras: an Oliver Stone commentary track ported over from a 2006 DVD release, plus new interview featurettes with Oliver Stone and Lon Bender. Unfortunately, the yakker is pretty basic, with the director providing dull descriptions of the real events that scenes in his film are based on in between uncomfortably long stretches of silence. Stone is fairly forthright about his disagreements with members of the band, particularly Ray Manzarek, about how Morrison's story should be treated, and restrictions placed on his story by Pamela's estate, but some of his more gratuitous asides are equally revealing. He occasionally leers at the women on screen (Christina Fulton may look nothing like Nico, whom she plays in the film, but Stone assures us she has "luscious breasts") and fidgets with the massive chip he bears on his shoulder when it comes to critics. One woman, he reveals, "is based on Pauline Kael, pictured as a crone, as a witch, hating, living on her negativity. Her face reveals all."
The new "Interview with Oliver Stone", running 31 mins., is better, edited to fit a tighter agenda. Stone discusses casting the film, noting that his first impulse for the lead was Tom Cruise, whom he dismissed as "too aggressive" for the role. He says he also considered David Brock, lead singer of Doors cover band Wild Child, as a ringer for Morrison. By the time the shoot was over, Stone and Kilmer were barely on speaking terms. ("Go fuck yourself," he says Kilmer told him. "You don't know how to direct.") Heather Graham was apparently in the running for the role that went to Meg Ryan; Stone tosses Ryan a backhanded compliment by noting that she "plays stoned very well." Towards the end of the session, Stone suggests that one of the reasons The Doors got a 4K upgrade at this moment in history was the surprise success of Bohemian Rhapsody. In an apparent oversight on the part of the disc's producers, one short passage of video, in which Stone explains that the New York party sequence was intended as a metaphor that illustrated the growing rift between Morrison and his bandmates, is edited into the program in two different places.
"Interview with Lon Bender" clocks in at 18 minutes. Bender is credited as a sound editor on the original film, but he sat in the mixer's chair for the 4K restoration, upgrading the original 5.1 track for what he calls the "near-field Dolby Atmos format." This feature initially comes across as a trade advertisement for Atmos, describing its advantages in glowing terms, but eventually settles into a discussion of Bender's work on The Doors. He describes his process of creating two different sets of masters from The Doors' recordings, one set on the first "plane" of surround sound and meant to come from the five (or seven) speakers mounted at roughly ear level, the second set in the ceiling speakers, with adjustments made as needed to convey the correct sense of space above the viewer. Some of it admittedly went over my head, though anyone who mixes cinema sound for a living should get a good, basic sense of the adjustments Bender has made to his usual mixing workflow in order to accommodate Atmos.
There's much more on the attendant BD, seemingly the exact same disc (and thus the same early transfer) released in 2008. "Jim Morrison: A Poet in Paris" (52 mins., SD) dates to 2006 and appears to have originated on that year's DVD release. It consists of a long string of talking-head interviews with French-speaking historians, Morrison experts, and Doors-o-philes attempting to explain the circumstances that led Morrison to Paris and his state of mind there in the final weeks of his life. A friend of Morrison's suggests he may have accidentally overdosed by taking pills without realizing how strong they were and rejects a theory that Morrison actually died after an overdose at the Rock & Roll Circus club on the Left Bank and was carried home by drug dealers. (That theory was advanced most credibly in 2007, a year too late to make into the piece, by the late Sam Bernett, who was manager of the Rock & Roll Circus back in 1971 and claimed to have found Morrison's lifeless body at the club.) Michèle Rudler, described on screen as both a "coroner" and an expert in toxicology and pharmacology, shows up near the end to describe Morrison's passing as "a rather suspect death," but nobody seems keen to hop onto the third rail that is a discussion of Morrison's demise proper.
"The Doors in L.A." (20 mins.) is a making-of doc built around interviews with Stone, Doors members John Densmore and Robbie Krieger, writers Ian Whitcomb and Pamela des Barres, Three Dog Night keyboardist Jimmy Greenspoon, and publicist Laura Kaufman. The short reflects on the film's socio-political setting and recounts the early days of the band in the then-collegial music community in L.A. and on the "uptight" New York scene. Krieger talks specifically about how the band felt it lost the connection with its audience as it played bigger and bigger venues, a key insight that Stone seems to have tried to expand upon in the film.
"The Road of Excess" (39 mins., SD) is another making-of, dating all the way back to the Pioneer Special Edition LaserDisc from 1997, that's largely redundant but has the advantage of interviews with Kilmer, Quinlan, and Frank Whaley (Krieger in the film), who are all absent in the supplements produced later on. Additionally featured is some behind-the-scenes footage from the production along with a good helping of archival Doors footage and photographs, in case you've forgotten what the real band looked like. Meanwhile, an EPK video (6 mins.) is standard-issue stuff but contains interview snippets with Kilmer, Ryan, and MacLachlan, as well as brief comments from Paul Rothchild, the music producer who replaced Morrison's vocals with Kilmer's dubs.
The Blu-ray is filled out with a slew of deleted scenes--14 of them, totalling around 40 minutes. None of the elided material is essential, and certainly not at the standard-def work-in-progress level at which it's presented. (Although it is somewhat interesting to note how incredibly hot Richardson's lighting appears on the raw footage before the film has been colour-timed.) Most notably, Stone originally intended to spend seven unpleasant minutes aboard an airplane with the band insulting the flight attendants and making children cry as Morrison tries to score some heroin. And another scene might have put a more risible spin on Kilmer's diffident man-child presentations. It's set in an Alta Cienega Motel room where Jim is in bed, sobbing, as a naked woman stretches out next to him, fingering a bottle of liquor with a disgusted expression on her face. "I like to cry when I come," Morrison explains through his tears, then adds, "You know, you better get home before your mom gets home." Rounding out the disc are four TV spots for The Doors plus longer previews for home-vid releases of 3:10 to Yuma, Crank, Step Into Liquid, Belly, and Rambo. A voucher for a digital copy of The Doors is tucked inside the keepcase.
138 minutes (final cut)/141 minutes (theatrical); R; UHD: 2.35:1 (2160p/MPEG-H), Dolby Vision/HDR10; BD: 2.35:1 (1080p/MPEG-4); UHD: English Dolby Atmos (7.1 TrueHD core); BD: English 5.1 DTS-HD MA, English DD 2.0 (Stereo); English, English SDH, Spanish subtitles; BD-100 + BD-50; Region-free (UHD), Region A (BD); Lionsgate