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Strange Days – The Doors on the Silver Screen

‘I heard the first Doors album on acid in Vietnam,’ confessed filmmaker Oliver Stone in an interview with Mother Jones Magazine in the spring of 1991, while promoting his highly anticipated biopic The Doors. ‘In Vietnam, the Doors spoke to me in a way that other groups didn’t.’ First emerging in 1967, the debut album from The Doors was released just two days before Operation Deckhouse Five, a failed military collaboration between American and Vietnamese marines that resulted in the deaths of twenty-eight men. The 1960s was a turbulent time in the United States, with the first half of the decade marking the assassinations of such important figures as President John F. Kennedy, Senator Robert Kennedy and Malcolm X, the escalating conflict in Vietnam and war protests and civil rights marches taking place across the country. Among all this was a growing counterculture, with drugs like marijuana and LSD playing an important role in a new generation of peace-loving and authority-questioning youths that the media would label as hippies.

Among the soldiers who would return from Vietnam was Oliver Stone, a twenty-four from New York who had volunteered and enlisted in the United States Army, where he had been wounded twice and awarded the Purple Heart with an Oak Leaf Cluster and Bronze Star for bravery. Enrolling at New York University, Stone began to experiment with filmmaking through a series of shorts, but after graduating from NYU he turned his hand to writing feature films. One of his earliest efforts was a story entitled Break, which he had written as a way to exorcise his memories of Vietnam. Having been seduced by the music of The Doors during his time in the army, Stone had hoped that they would consider composing the score for the music and so sent the screenplay to Jim Morrison, the band’s charismatic yet deeply troubled frontman. Stone was finally given the chance to try his hand at directing with a little-seen horror picture called Seizure.

Disappointed with his first feature, Stone became a writer-for-hire, a process that eventually paid off when he was won the Academy Award for Best Screenplay with his adaptation of Billy Hayes’ personal account of his time in a Turkish prison for drug smuggling, Midnight Express. While his second directorial effort, another horror called The Hand, did little to follow his award success, Stone would continue to enjoy success as a writer with his screenplays for the sword and sorcery fantasy Conan the Barbarian, an early starring vehicle for Austrian bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger and Brian De Palma’s remake of the 1930s gangster flick Scarface. Stone’s own directing career would finally gain momentum in the mid-1980s with a string of successful pictures, Salvador and his semi-autobiographical Vietnam drama Platoon, the latter earning him an Oscar for Best Director and the acclaimed capitalist satire Wall Street.

A movie based around the music of The Doors had long been a cherished project for Stone, but due to the popularity and influence of the group he would not be the only director to take an interest when a biopic was first proposed. Among the other curious parties were De Palma, Stone’s former NYU tutor Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, whose own Vietnam epic Apocalypse Now had opened with extensive use of the band’s early epic The End. For Stone, a movie based on The Doors was among his dream projects, yet the long process of finding a suitable script and convincing studios he was the right director for the job were beginning to take its toll on him. ‘Back in ’85, I was nixed by The Doors,’ he told critic Jay Carr in 1991. ‘I had liked one of the early drafts a little bit and that was a no-no. So I forgot about it and in ’89 it came again after they had sent six other directors away. I think that they were so tired by then that they just said, ‘Well, let’s just let this guy do the job.”

Developing a biopic on The Doors would not be as straightforward as Stone had hoped. While he would work on new drafts of the script, certain issues needed to be considered before he could complete a screenplay that would satisfy all involved. Firstly, the production would need to obtain permission from the parents of two main characters in the movie, Morrison and Pamela Courson, who had passed away in 1971 and 1974, respectively, and seek their approval on how the two would be portrayed. The three surviving members of the group, keyboardist and co-founder Ray Manzarek, guitarist Robby Krieger and drummer John Densmore, would also be required to give their blessing. While both Krieger and Densmore seemed eager to work as consultants on the production, Manzarek was less-than-enthusiastic about their life story being adapted into a Hollywood movie.

After the death of Morrison, whose body had been found by Courson in their rented apartment in Paris, The Doors continued to record as a three-piece, with Manzarek taking over as frontman, before eventually splitting two years later. Regardless, in 1978 the remaining members released a final studio album entitled An American Prayer, in which they had recorded music to accompany spoken-word poems that Morrison had caught on tape almost a decade earlier. In 1980, the first biography on The Doors, No One Gets Out Alive, was published by journalist Jerry Hopkins and the band’s former assistant manager Danny Sugerman. This insider account of the rise and fall of one of America’s greatest rock bands would provide ample resource information for the numerous writers who would attempt to write a biopic over the following decade. The final draft of the movie would be credited to both Stone and Randall Jahnson, who had penned the 1987 comedy Dudes.

By Stone’s account, Hopkins would provide him with a wealthy of unpublished testimonies from over a hundred sources, each with different memories and opinions on Morrison. To further assist with authenticity, the director sought the assistance of music producers Paul A. Rothchild and Bruce Botnick, both of whom had worked with the band throughout their all-too-brief career. Arguably the most celebrated aspect of the movie would be the casting of Morrison, the key to its success or failure, as almost every scene would focus around the frontman. Stone and producer Alex Kitman Ho auditioned countless young actors for the roll, yet the most promising candidate was thirty-year-old Val Kilmer, who had courted notoriety for his bad temper and acclaim for his strong performances. It would not be until the actor shot a video of himself in character that the filmmakers finally realised they had found their lead. ‘Val looked like him and, most importantly, sounded like him,’ explained Kitman Ho. ‘He was absolutely great. From watching that video, we were quickly convinced that Val Kilmer was perfect for the role of Jim Morrison.’

Kilmer famously immersed himself into the roll, living and breathing the world of Morrison throughout the shoot. Yet he was insistent that the movie not merely be a celebration of rock and roll excess. ‘I told Oliver, ‘If your intention is to glorify his lifestyle, I’ve got no interest,” Kilmer told Entertainment Weekly during filming. ‘Which was pretty pretentious for me to say. But Morrison was an alcoholic and that’s no way to live.’ Aside from Hollywood star Meg Ryan, who was cast as Courson, Kilmer would be surrounded by a host of character actors to play the numerous souls that drifted through Morrison’s life. Among them were Crispin Glover as Andy Warhol, Michael Wincott and Rothchild, Frank Whaley as Krieger and Kevin Dillon as Densmore. Both Whaley and Dillon would receive music lessons in order to master their instruments, while also learning the original songs from the artists they were portraying. Kilmer, meanwhile, receive extensive tutelage from Rothchild on how to sing and move like Morrison. To further achieve a believable performance, vocals from Morrison’s would be mixed with Kilmer’s to make it sound as real as possible.

Meg Ryan and Val Kilmer

Meg Ryan and Val Kilmer

While Manzarek had little interest in the project, the character still played an important role in the story and so David Lynch veteran Kyle MacLachlan, fresh from his acclaim with the TV show Twin Peaks, was cast. ‘There was one night I’ll never forget, where we were at the rehearsal studios, and we rehearsed a lot,’ recalled MacLachlan in the documentary Back to the Roots. ‘So Robby Krieger played the guitar for Frank Whaley, who never learned all of the stuff, the guitar would have been difficult for him to learn. And we actually played four songs.’ In his autobiography Light My Fire, Manzarek criticised the movie for being moronic due to its numerous inaccuracies and tendency to sensationalise events, particularly regarding their infamous appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, stating ‘…if you would have had the wit to show The Doors fighting the establishment instead of going for the overused cliché of rock band fights among themselves as the lead singer tries to retain integrity while the rest of the band wants to sell out…well, perhaps you’d have a better film.’

Manzarek would not be the only one to speak out against the movie, despite it performing well at the box office. Many critics felt the script was too formulaic and by-the-numbers, with The Washington Post stating, ‘The Doors is like a party where everybody’s tripping except you. Stone turns the ’60s not into the decade of peace and love and rock and roll, but into the decade of acting out, of shameless, self-delusional indulgence. The film could strike a killing blow to our nostalgia for those days.’ In his 1992 stand-up show No Cure for Cancer, comedian Denis Leary angrily declared, ‘We need a two-and-a-half-hour movie about The Doors, folks? No, we don’t. I could sum it up for you in five seconds, okay? ‘I’m drunk, I’m nobody; I’m drunk, I’m famous; I’m drunk, I’m fucking dead.’ There’s the whole movie, okay? Big Fat Dead Guy in a Bathtub, there’s your title for you!’

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