Music and movies have frequently gone together. While cinema loves a good musical, often musicians have tried to make the move to the silver screen, and cinematic stories themselves have tried to capture the life of a musician through works of fiction or Oscar-calibre biopics. For Music in the Movies, Set the Tape will explore musical biopics, the mixed successes of attempts to make musicians movie stars, and tales that revel in the wonder of music and lyrics
The journey of The Doors to the silver screen was not easy. To read up on directors that were attached to productions that didn’t end up being produced make for wonderful ‘what if’ scenarios. That’s not to mention the casting of potential leads to play the role of Jim Morrison.
Despite being called The Doors, the film is really centred on Morrison as opposed to the band as a whole, but then that is always a potential pitfall a film about a band can easily fall into. Flash forward twenty-seven years later, and Bohemian Rhapsody is primarily a film about Freddie Mercury, with the other bandmates playing substantial roles, but the story is very much one about its lead singer.
Such was the mystique around Morrison that it’s no surprise that the film really wants to go to town in exploring his songwriting and all too short journey in life. The list of actors considered for the role was quite expansive, with Tom Cruise, Keanu Reeves, Jason Patric, Johnny Depp, John Travolta and even real-life singers such as Ian Astbury of The Cult and Michael Hutchence of INXS mooted as possible suggestions. Given that Michael Hutchence’s own life was sadly cut short, there would have been a strange connective tissue in that casting, not to mention the passing resemblance between the two.
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The film really ought to have been called Jim Morrison, such a dominating force of nature he is shown to be in the finished product. The obvious thing to say about the film, and the easiest thing to applaud it for is Val Kilmer’s portrayal. The Doors is a band with a devoted following, who explore Morrison’s performances and the lyrics of the band’s songs in deep ways, and Morrison himself is a character in this film that is in the hands of an actor clearly committed to capturing the elusive essence of the performer.
Kilmer is perhaps an actor who is never given enough credit for the work that he’s delivered. While there were some high-profile flops, such as when he took over from Roger Moore in a big-screen version of The Saint (a film I rather liked), you sometimes get the sense that Kilmer was an actor who was born at the wrong time.
For all that his slick good looks that made him perfect for supporting roles in Top Gun, and even taking on the mantle of Batman in Batman Forever, you sometimes couldn’t help but feel that here was the soul of a 70s method actor who would have been in great company amongst the likes of Pacino and De Niro (as he was in Michael Mann’s 1995 masterpiece Heat). Instead he was born with the looks of a Hollywood star and ended up frequently being placed amongst the likes of Tom Cruise or Richard Gere with that near robotic sense of 80s handsomeness.
Perhaps Morrison is the definitive Kilmer performance. For as surprisingly soulful as he was as Batman in Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever, a franchise moving away from the gothic leanings of Tim Burton to a more expansive and expensive form of camp that Kilmer surprisingly brought a lot of humanity to, there is an intensity here that the actor grasps with both hands that is breath-taking throughout.
The Doors themselves are a band that can either draw fanatic devotion or exasperation due to perceived pretentiousness. The allure and controversy of the band are perhaps best expressed in the moment when they perform at the famed Whiskey a Go Go in Los Angeles. Performing ‘The End’ for the first time, a song made even more famous by its provocative use in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, the club is enraptured by Morrison’s performance which flits from singing to a spoken word section that takes the lyrics into Oedipal territory that repulses the audience and has the band thrown out of the club. It’s perhaps a moment that sums up the foursome in a nutshell, and indicates just how evocatively director Oliver Stone captures the aura, feel and reactionary nature of the group as performers.
Like the list of potential Morrisons, many directors danced around the project over the years before it ended up being directed by Oliver Stone. One of those names was Brian De Palma, and what an intriguing notion that is. But given that Stone had captured Vietnam so vividly with Platoon and, in the same year as The Doors, the assassination and fallout of John F Kennedy in JFK, there was perhaps no other director working in Hollywood at the time who could capture the aura of the 60s as vividly as Stone.
By this point, he had directed not one but two seemingly definitive accounts of the Vietnam War, with his own biographical Platoon, and a few years later with Born on the Fourth of July, a film that, like The Doors and Kilmer, had given Tom Cruise a career-defining performance that hinted at a more serious undercurrent to go with what was perceived as conventional Hollywood good looks.
The Doors itself takes place with Vietnam and the falling apart of the American Dream in the background. Inevitably, Stone cannot help but make too big a leap with his distinctions and comparisons between Morrison as a person and the upheaval that the US was facing with Vietnam and the deaths of Martin Luther King, JFK and RFK. It’s the film making a grandiose point just when it appears that it’s on the cusp of making Morrison more graspable as a person, after having spent considerable time being at his most unsympathetic. It’s a moment Stone loses a grip on, even if the intent is clear, but then Stone’s approach to the film was perhaps a reason why it ended up garnering mixed reviews from critics and a less than favourable reaction from the surviving band members.
The end credits begin with a thank you to the surviving members of the band, and yet to hear from them since the release of the film in 1991 is to be presented with opinions that range from the mixed to negative. Ray Manzarek, played in the film by Kyle McLachlan in a plethora of wigs throughout, was particularly vocal about how he felt about Morrison’s portrayal in the film. The entire second half of the film sees Kilmer play Morrison with what looks to be a bottle of alcohol permanently superglued to his hand. Stone really goes to town with a portrayal of a lead singer of a successful rock band losing himself in fame, booze, women and excess, and perhaps no other rock biopic has captured that as in your face as Stone does here.
His directing style is less powerful than Platoon, nor is it as evocative as JFK, instead bordering on an in-your-face manner that was to get an even more ferocious workout a few years later with his controversial Natural Born Killers. While he doesn’t use every film stock at his disposal here as he would do with his radical interpretation of an early Quentin Tarantino script, he turns everything up to eleven (as Spinal Tap would say) to capture Morrison’s descent into a world of hard drinking, substance abuse and sexual activity.
However, according to his surviving bandmates, this was not the Morrison they knew. They talked lovingly of a person who was sensitive, funny, and poetic. Stone captures the poetic side, and there is sensitivity to be found in those desert scenes that leads to the creation of ‘The End’, the best sequence in the film. We’re treated (if treated is the right word) to Morrison losing himself in hatred, self-sabotage and even confrontationally provoking authority figures and his own fanbase, at concerts that end up descending into chaos where fights, riots and concert-goers storm the stage with no clothes on in an almost orgiastic sense of chaos.
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Stone might be embellishing the facts and going away from the biopic that the band wanted, and the film is very much fully centred on Morrison, but the combination of Kilmer’s performance and Stone’s direction means that even at a near two-and-a-half-hour length, it draws you in. Kilmer is the pivotal point that makes it work. It’s one of the greatest performances in the rock biopic genre, even if the band themselves are quick to point out that it wasn’t the reality of the situation.
There is a tragic undercurrent to the whole thing given that Morrison was only twenty-seven when he died. Throughout the film, Morrison is literally haunted by a spectre of death that he witnesses at a young age. Once again, this is Stone going maybe a tad too over-stylised with the visuals, while also relying on early 90s Hollywood’s obsession with using Native Americans and Native American belief in the context of a white man’s journey, but it gives the film a tragic poetic spark that is perhaps none more Morrison.