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Oliver Stone's Fever Dream of the 1960s

by The GenX Joint about a month ago in 60s music · updated about a month ago
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A Review of The Doors (1991)

Image credit: Jim Morrison, circa 1967/68.

The Doors, released in 1991, tells the story of the legendary American rock star Jim Morrison, who fronted The Doors from 1966 to 1971. The movie errs on the side of myth rather than reality, but since Jim Morrison was obsessed with his own mythology this somehow works. If you are looking for a sober account of the late 1960s, rock music, or The Doors in particular, you will not find it here. What you will find is a fantastic performance by Val Kilmer in the lead role and some over-the-top directing in the patented Oliver Stone style of the 1990s.

Jim Morrison, born in 1943, established the template for the American rock-n-roll front man. Perry Farrell, Axel Rose, Trent Reznor, Eddie Vedder, and pretty much every teenage boy since who has picked up a microphone and sung Roadhouse Blues in his garage owes a debt to Jim. When The Doors appeared on Ed Sullivan in 1967 to promote their iconic single, Light My Fire, the three musicians in the band were positioned with their instruments on a stage set with flowers and groovy psychedelic kitsch. Jim, on the other hand, stood front and center in a black leather suit, glowering through the song but delivering the vocal power and sex appeal that ensured the band's legacy over 50 years later. The fact that he contorts himself at the end of the song into a reasonable facsimile of an ancient Greek statue is a melodramatic but effective touch. If you watch carefully, you will also see that he is so attractive in this clip that even turns himself on.

There is no doubt that in his prime Jim Morrison radiated sex appeal, but there was something off-kilter about the guy that did not sit well with Teen Beat magazine. This is also the era of The Monkees, after all, and no one could really decide if Jim was a teen-idol, a genuine artist, or a faker. He rarely smiled for the cameras, took himself rather seriously as a poet, and managed to be stoned and articulate simultaneously in interviews, puffing up routine celebrity press scrums with references to Artaud, Rimbaud, and other literary name-drops from his UCLA days.

The movie adheres pretty closely to the narrative set down by Danny Sugarman and Jerry Hopkins in No One Here Gets Out Alive. This was the book, coupled with a Rolling Stone cover proclaiming "He's Hot, He's Sexy, and He's Dead," that relaunched Jim in 1981, ten years after his mysterious death in Paris. Slim Jim, who lasted sometime into 1970, was so photogenic that he had to be brought back for a second round of fame during the early MTV era when the new channel was hungry for content and Rock Stars still roamed the earth. The book also locked-in Jim's image as an alcohol-addled 'genius,' who was allowed to treat people very badly and indulge in all sorts of psychotic behavior because, well, he was Jim Morrison and that is what sexy, skinny, male rock stars did in the 1960s and 70s, especially when the songs really were that good. There is a reason this book is still on the shelves and tends to sell to 15-year-olds looking for an alternative to the suburbs.

The movie gets some things right. Jim did leave home after high school and found his way from Florida to Los Angeles, studied film at UCLA, and then connected with keyboardist Ray Manzerek, beginning the rapid ascent to fame. He was influenced, as all young rebellious white Americans were then, by some vague ideas about Native American spirituality and authenticity. He did want, badly, to be a poet and to be respected. He had some mysterious issues with his parents, particularly his father (who was an Admiral in the US Navy and allegedly present at the Gulf of Tonkin incident that threw America fully into the Vietnam War). He grew very tired of the bloated, cliched machine that The Doors became, became fat and unhealthy due mainly to serious alcoholism, and was arrested for indecent exposure during a concert in Miami. He died in Paris, in a bathtub, on July 3, 1971, while awaiting a verdict and a potential prison sentence for this violation. (No one has ever conclusively provided photographic evidence of indecent exposure). He also slept around a lot but had an ongoing relationship with Pamela Courson, a young hippie chick who considered herself Jim's common law wife and was with him in that Paris apartment on the morning of his death. Some say heart attack; others say heroin overdose.

Yet even these basic details are so mixed up with the Myth of Jim Morrison that things start to get rather baroque about 30 minutes into the film. Oliver Stone lets fly with his dream version of the late 1960s, a place where rock music is the single most important artistic event in Western history, the Vietnam War is all anyone thinks about when they aren't thinking about drugs and Native Americans, and self-destruction and cruelty are mythic. The movie by the end comes across like every Gen-Xer's memory of hearing about the 1960s in college, as told by Boomer professors who weren't hippies, rock stars, soldiers, or at Woodstock, but really wanted you to think that they were.

To be fair, the late 1960s in America actually were A Big Deal. And The Doors were a great band. But Jim Morrison, in reality, cannot live up to this much hype. He was a sexy, photogenic, damaged young man. He projected cool, pushed the boundaries for male sex appeal a bit further, and his bohemian spirit still lingers along Sunset Boulevard and in every down-market T-shirt and souvenir shop in Hollywood. He was not a Greek God, nor was he a statue, and many, including Bob Dylan, would even argue that he really wasn't a poet and certainly not a shaman. This movie is big, gaudy, reckless, and fun. You will find the myth of the 1960s -- and of one of the great American bands -- here. But you won't find Jim Morrison.

60s music

About the author

The GenX Joint

My name is Amy Fletcher. My writing focuses on movies, art, photography, pop culture, and tech. I am fascinated by the 1960s/70s and all things tech-futuristic.

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Nice work

Very well written. Keep up the good work!

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