When the Music's Over: Oliver Stone's Tribute to Excess and the God of Rock
"There are things known. There are things unknown. And in between are the Doors."
The DoorsDirector: Oliver Stone
Cast: Val Kilmer, Meg Ryan, Kyle MacLachlan, Frank Whaley, Kevin Dillon, Kathleen Quinlan, Billy Idol, Josh Evans
Studio: TriStar Pictures
Release Date: 1991-03-01
When Oliver Stone’s psychedelic journey into the soul of Jim Morrison came out in 1991, Morrison had been dead only 20 years. Now, it’s been over 40. In The Doors, Stone cinematically portrays Morrison (in an almost universally regarded bravura performance by Val Kilmer) as part shaman, part Dionysus and a symbol of late 1960s decadence. But, Morrison was no shaman, neither was he an ancient Greek god incarnate. He was a poet and a rock star.
He was also a drunk. And, sadly, audiences never really get to know the soul of Morrison through the lens on Stone. They only see a life on a course to becoming a bearded corpse found in a Parisian bathtub.
The Doors is really not about the Doors. It’s about Morrison en route to death. Audiences do not get to see the poet at work, why his relationship with Pamela Courson (played by Meg Ryan in the film) continued to endure despite the drink, drugs, fame and infidelity or his deeper relationships with fellow bandmates and others who were close to him. It’s all a bit of psychedelic playacting by the '60s-obsessed Stone. And Stone makes it work well -- at least in that sense -- showing Morrison's heroic rise to rock god status and decadent downward spiral, all set to what is arguably the greatest rock soundtrack of all time.
In one of the film’s sadder moments, Morrison is too drunk to even sing “Touch Me” in time with the rest of the band. As Morrison throws a tantrum following the failed take, Doors producer Paul Rothchild intervenes telling Morrison: “I see Jim. I hear Jim. But you know what? I miss him.”
Stone misses him, too. Unless audience members are meant to take these snapshots of Jim Morrison, self-destructive God of Rock, as a true portrait of the then modern tortured artist. In Stone’s vision Morrison is not so much an artist tortured by the existential truths of existence, but by himself. The movie becomes a cult of personality surrounding a false god.
Two things save the film, however: Val Kilmer’s performance and the iconic music of the Doors. But, what else might Stone be telling us about the '60s? About Morrison? About life, even? Perhaps it was only the foment of the age of cultural revolution that, Stone is showing audiences, the likes of Jim Morrison could come to fruition. Perhaps Morrison is symbolic of the death of the artist in a society bent on war and destruction. Ultimately, maybe there’s a little bit of Jim Morrison in all of us. Maybe that’s the lesson.
Or maybe there isn’t one. And that’s okay too.
According to pioneering consciousness scholar Dr. Stanley Krippner who explored the spiritual aspect of Morrison’s life in the essay Jim Morrison: The Crises of a Failed Shaman, unlike traditional shamans Morrison not only demonstrated little care for his own life but for that of his audience members as well.
Krippner said, “Traditional shamans often engage in wild, chaotic behavior. But it is a performance, not a life style; shamans respect the needs of their community and conserve their energy for their roles as healers, mediators, and protectors. These shamans face crises of health, of confidence, and of assaults by ‘dark forces.’ However, their disciplined lifestyle guides them through these crises to safety on the other side of the conflict or challenge. Crises occur when individuals or societies are confronted with events and experiences that portend impending outcomes that are likely to be unfavorable if the crises are not resolved. A crisis may be a turning point, a radical change, or a critical juncture in the life of a person or a group. Most indigenous shamans have the personal resources to turn crises into opportunities, becoming stronger and wiser as a result.”
But what were Morrison’s personal resources that would’ve enabled him to take the plunge into shamanic depths and return to heal the tribe? Alienated from his family, he said in one song that he preferred a “feast of friends”. But his alcohol and drug abuse would set him further apart from them, from the members of his band and, often, from his lover Pamela Courson – to whom he was notoriously unfaithful and who would later die of a drug overdose. While Morrison took on the guise of the shaman, was it really more performance art than anything else? Were the Doors more than a strange burlesque act masquerading around as a transcendent spiritual rock 'n' roll power? Was Jim Morrison more than a faux shaman?
Yes and no.
I would put forth the proposition that Morrison and the Doors were both more and less than what they seemed to be. Morrison was the God of Rock and shaman for his age of excess. Where a traditional shaman returns to heal the tribe, Morrison’s shaman only pointed a direction. Was it mystical and transcendent? Was it self-destructive? Yes. He was a contradiction. So was his path. So were his times. The members of the Doors followed his lead musically -- letting his philosophical and poetic ramblings inform their music with a divine madness that captured the souls of those who have listened for almost half a century.
In the film, Pamela Courson tells Morrison that he’s “a poet, not a rock star". This, in fact, may be the most penetratingly truthful line in the film, underlying the superficial appearance that his was, indeed, both. He was, it can be gathered from Morrison lore and scholarship, a poet at heart. Morrison was a reflection of his age and his age also became a reflection of him. Had he not found fame would he still be alive writing poetry? Had his demons not been so haunting and his addictions and drug and alcohol binges so strong what more might he have said?
Oliver Stone uses Morrison the character as a symbol of decadence that leads to decay and death, both the death of the ego and the death of the body. Morrison becomes a symbol of the 1960s and early 1970s and the end of a dream that enlightenment was possible through excess. During a montage of clips showing the various horrors of the age, Morrison's ego structure seemingly collapses as he says “I think I’m having a nervous breakdown.”
It’s hard to believe that Jim Morrison’s seemingly nihilistic plunge into the depths came without meaning. One need only read the best of his poetry to realize there’s more to Morrison than that for which many will give credit. Concerning his poetry, there’s at least one comparative biography of Morrison and Rimbaud -- one of his icons. Morrison’s poetics, however, continue to be rejected by contemporary scholarship -- for now. Despite this fact the celebration continues and the world is replete with books about Morrison and the Doors. Their status as legends is secure in the popular mind.
By most accounts, Morrison was a brilliant performer, a passionate poet and a sensitive soul. It was, perhaps, in his sensitivity -- in his wounded soul -- that he found himself and his art and he shared it with the world. He took his art and his life beyond the limits. And one can appreciate his poetry and music and also sympathize with a fellow human being who felt great pain; pain that could never be entirely silenced until, to paraphrase in homage, the music was over and the light was turned out.
The release of Stone’s film The Doors was part of the director’s fetish with the 1960s. It also sparked an appreciation of the music of the Doors and the poetry and life of Jim Morrison by a new generation of listeners and readers. For that reason, the film transcends itself in importance. Everyone has their own take on Jim Morrison and that’s just fine. Morrison has been romanticized and criticized. He has died and been resurrected in the popular mind. In the end, though, even though he may be more man than shaman, his Dionysian vibe has stayed with the world and will continue.
As with many of Stone’s films, it’s often the seeming flaws in the skein that show the brilliance of the art. The Doors lets audience members catch a glimpse of a supernova, doesn’t preach to them and leaves them wondering why it all happened to begin with.