'The Doors': time to wallow in the mire of the acid-tripping '60s

March 01, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

'The Doors'

Starring Val Kilmer and Meg Ryan.

Directed by Oliver Stone.

Released by Tri-Star.

Rated R.

... ** The legendary singer-lyricist and rock icon Jim Morrison yearned to find new wine in old bottles; what he discovered instead were simply new bottles, most of them filled with old whiskey, and they killed him at 27.

Once a fusion of Dionysian spirit and political outrage, of Eros and Thanatos violently entwined, his fires lit, his soul clearly having broken through to the other side, he ended alone in a bathtub in a cold-water flat in Paris, with a fat belly and a dead heart.

Now Oliver Stone, the Cecil B. DeMille of '60s re-creations, has turned Morrison's short but crazed life into a very loud -- I say again, very loud -- spectacle, complete to biblical orgies and creative miracles, that mourns (while secretly celebrating) the consumptions of the creative life.

You don't see "The Doors," you survive it. Stone has an extraordinary gift for the visceral, for making his audiences feel the texture and smell the odors of a certain reality, and the reality he has chosen here -- the rock-'n'-rollin', acid-tripping '60s -- beats you half to death, and never more violently than in his several rock concerts. These he re-creates like hellish tribal gatherings, with waves of arms and bodies and nude women undulating in the aisles and Morrison choreographing the madness like some Druid priest calling up his generation's libidos from its subconscious.

But the movie is less interested in creating a record than validating Morrison's own view of himself. Consequently, it replicates the "altered states of consciousness" which Morrison sought so assiduously in drugs and alcohol; the camera itself is ++ therefore usually drunk, staggering around in little froggie-hops, quivering moistly between the illusion of utter clarity and the eyeball-up gravity of total collapse. Is it pro-drug? Yes, but the drug it promotes is Dramamine.

Keepers of the flame of the Doors and their music may be somewhat disappointed that, title notwithstanding, the group and its music is given less attention by far than its frontman; it's like a movie called "The Beatles" that's only about John. More surprisingly, given the thunderous quality of the soundtrack, no single classic Doors song is performed start to finish without interruption or distraction, which is frustrating. The band members, likewise, are washed out, pushed to the edges, like minor sitcom figures and only a vivid performer like Kyle MacLachlan comes through despite his underwritten part of Ray Manzarek; the performers are not characters in their own biographies.

Meanwhile, there's Jim and Pam. Jim is played with insouciant coyness by Val Kilmer, who, with his hair page-boyed and pouffed and his leather jeans blowtorched on, bears an amazing physical resemblance to Morrison. Kilmer's performance is almost coquettish in the way it flirts with us; it's full of fey body language, a kind of bad-boy pixie sweetness.

Pam is Jim's lover and mother-confessor, though Meg Ryan's confused performance may suggest that Pam never quite "got" Jim, even as he was getting her by exposing her to the narcotics which killed her three years after he died himself.

Stone doesn't quite sentimentalize Morrison and is capable of displaying the rock star's monumental infantility and self-destructiveness. But neither does he judge Morrison rigorously or hold him to any moral standard for clearly glorifying a chemicalized lifestyle whose price we are now paying in alleyways and street corners every night. Rather, it's Morrison's hunger to subject himself to the far rigors of sensual catastrophe that seem to fascinate him the most.

The flaw in the film is its unrelenting tone of bombast. It never gives you a break. You ache for a moment of quietude, an escape from the lizard king's cranium. You want . . . the '70s . . . you want . . . Travolta . . . you want . . . disco, for God's sake!

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