So, the 2017 Blindspot Series isn't going as planned. Back in January, I watched THX 1138 for the first time, and then...nothing. That changes this month. Part of the
Why did I pick it? The easy answer is that The Doors, about the rock band of the same name, is considered by many to be a classic when it comes to musical biopics. Since I've been known to love a good movie about musicians, it only makes sense. I also consider myself a movie buff, obviously. It's pretty hard to call yourself that when I haven't seen one of the most beloved films by the legendary and controversial director Oliver Stone. However, neither of those reasons is the real one. The real reason I picked this movie is because I have a very strange history with it. I've heard the movie, in full, several times, and parts of it many more times. Let me explain.
Unbeknownst to me, The Doors hit theaters in the spring of 1991. By the end of that year, it hit home video. I hadn't even heard of it until one of my roommates brought a copy of it home. At the time, I was in the U.S. Army and living in the barracks. The room I stayed in was about the size of your average public school classroom, maybe a bit smaller, which I shared with three other dudes. To gain some measure of privacy we created artificial boundaries. Curtains, bamboo partitions, and furniture marked off the tiny sections of the room we claimed for ourselves. This particular roomie used the rather large old school entertainment center. They have become almost obsolete since the rise of the flatscreen, so I'll forgive my millennials, for the confused look on their faces. My older readers remember them. This one was about six foot tall and a little longer than that with lots of shelves and just enough space for a 27" television. He and I were cool, but not really friends since we had almost nothing in common and not enough interest to find out if there was more. For the few months he was in my room, I mostly remember just hearing whatever he was watching on TV from the back of his mammoth stand.
That brings me to today's movie. When he got that copy of The Doors he watched it every chance he had. He may not have watched it every single day, but dammit he was close. Since I never went over and watched it with him, it just served as background noise for whatever I was doing in my little corner of the Earth. He usually kept it at a tolerable volume and I was starting to spend more time in other people's rooms than my own, it wasn't too bad. It just seemed like whenever I was in the room that's what he was watching. Sometime during the third or fourth time I was hearing it, we had our one and only exchange about it.
Dell: Man, is that the same movie, again? What are you watching?
Roomie: The Doors.
Dell: That must be the greatest movie ever.
And that was it. He moved to another room and I didn't think about watching The Doors for quite some time. Hell, I felt like I had seen it ten times even though I hadn't even seen it once. Fast-forward to the mid-2000s when I really start to expand my film vocabulary beyond action, horror, and raunchy comedy. I worked part-time in a blockbuster and came across the store's copy of the movie several times a day while straightening up shelves, or checking it in or out. Almost every time, I told myself I need to give it a proper viewing. Somehow, that never happened, until now.
As it begins, we meet the band's lead singer, Jim Morrison (Val Kilmer), before there is a band. He is a film student at UCLA and we immediately see he is a different kind of guy. Jim is very much into trying to reach some ethereal plane above the one us mere mortals will ever achieve. In an attempt to reach it, he dabbles in mind-altering substances. He spouts off lots of psuedo-spiritual babble about it, including lots of his own self-indulgent poetry. Soon, he meets Pamela Courson (Meg Ryan), the love of his life. Meets is too nice a word for what actually happens. He stalks the shit out of her and she goes for it. Ah, the 60s. You'd either be thrown in jail or murdered for doing the stuff he did to win her hand. That's neither here, nor there. The important part is they fell in love. Around the same time, he meets Ray Manzarek (Kyle MacLachlan) and the rest of the guys who would form The Doors. Soon enough, they start playing local clubs. Before you know it, "Break on Through (to the Other Side)" is a huge smash hit and the venues the band plays get progressively larger. Through all of this, there are a lot of ups and downs in Jim's relationship with Pamela. This includes him starting a concurrently running romance with journalist Patricia Kennealy (Kathleen Quinlan). Lots of sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll ensues
The film became a star-making turn for Val Kilmer as the eccentric Morrison, and rightfully so. It's easily the best performance I've ever seen him give. You fully buy into the fact that he is this off-center, accidental genius, who's musings resonate when backed by a rock band. In his real life, he came off as that guy who just knew he was smarter than everyone else. The problem is this makes him a pretty flat protagonist. He's kind of a jerk at the start of the film and still kind of a jerk when it ends. He just happens to become rich and famous in the interim. In lots of other biopics, the hero morphs into an uncontrollable jackass as their star rises. The key to making this person a sympathetic figure is that we have the early images of him or her when they were just young, talented dreamers trying to rise up from meager beginnings. We never really get that, here. He just goes along being weird, arrogant, irresponsible, pissing off everyone around him, and constantly on some impossible quest. If you weren't already a fan of Jim Morrison, this film isn't going to make you one. Worse than that, when the film gets to his inevitable death scene, it is a moment that fails to stir our emotions. Instead of sharing in Pamela's grief, we shrug our shoulders and wonder why anyone would miss him. His band mates all seem to hate him and his parents don't speak to him. There are the two women he's involved with, but the fact there are two of them who know about one another makes us feel that although they both loved him, even they had to realize it was a chance to move on to a more worthy companion.
Another issue I have with this movie is the band. Despite their name serving as the title, they never emerge from the background to become actual people. They only serve two purposes. The first is to be perpetually angry with Jim. He misses a performance, they whine about it. He shows up extremely high, they moan. And so on, and so on. They do this in short spurts and do little else. Their other purpose is to help populate the screen. They show up in scene after scene like glorified extras. As time passes, their girlfriends, wives, and children help fill up the space with more bodies. Still, I couldn't tell you any of their names, nor anything about them. I had to use Wikipedia to figure out that the only guy who halfway likes Jim is named Ray Manzarek. Until then, I simply thought of him as Band Member #2. Calling this film The Doors is just a flat out lie. It isn't about them, at all. The error is even more egregious when you consider that a better title was literally staring Oliver Stone, and everyone else, directly in the face. Break on Through (to the Other Side), while perhaps a tad long, would perfectly encapsulate what Jim seemingly spent his life trying to do. It would also save us the trouble of thinking we were going to see a film about the band.
Finally, Stone misfires with the whole spiritual thing. He does so by throwing around a lot of supernatural visuals, but never diving deep enough to make it anything more than what Jim sees when his brain is fried on some hallucinogen. An old Native American man keeps showing up, along with the Native American family Jim saw on the side of the road as a child, all we get of him as a child, by the way. Stone works hard to set up the possibility that Morrison really is achieving some heightened existence. Rather than adding depth to Morrison, it makes him appear even more detached from reality than his usual babbling.
It may seem that I hate this film, but that's not true. Oliver Stone does direct the film with flare. There are the aforementioned psychedelic scenes. There are also the absolutely wild concert scenes. Morrison's dueling love affairs add some interesting melodrama and the director paces it all, wonderfully. Whether the film works for you, or not, it whizzes by at a nice clip. It helps that aside from Kilmer, Meg Ryan and Kathleen Quinlan both give excellent performances. I've never been much of a fan of Ryan and I'm not too familiar with Quinlan, but both managed to inject life into the proceedings. Ryan's Pamela, for reasons only she knew, held out hope that Jim would do right by her. She emerges as the lone sympathetic figure who saw something in Jim the rest of us, viewers included, couldn't. Quinlan's Patricia matches Jim's other-worldliness. The two feel like kindred free spirits. However, she's a bit too in your face about everything for us to really like. The film, as a whole, is sorta like that, as well. There are some good things happening which makes it an entertaining watch. It's just not one in which we get nearly as emotionally involved as it wants us to be. Like the movie's main subject, it comes off as cold, detached, and reaching for something not quite attainable.