The Doors: When The Movie's Over
Posted 21 June 2011 - 05:09 PM
Steven P. Wheeler
The Doors: When The Movie's Over
Did you have a good world when you died?
Enough to base a movie on?
WITH THE release of Oliver Stone's newest film, simply entitled The Doors, Jim Morrison's poetic prophecy has finally come to a celluloid realization. Twenty years after his death, Morrison remains an original. The Lizard King, the erotic politician and the sensual shaman are just a few of the media catch-phrases that have been used to describe Morrison's controversial and self-destructive lifestyle over the years.
From a musical standpoint, Morrison and the Doors forged a new path of discovery whose influence is still felt to this day. Despite all this acclaim and because of the ensuing myths and legends surrounding the group's charismatic leader Jim Morrison the Man has all but disappeared.
The Doors, the new movie from Oscar-winning writer/director Oliver Stone, attempts to capture James Douglas Morrison's life and times. Music Connection talked with film co-producers Bill Graham and Sasha Harari, music supervisor Paul Rothchild (producer of every Doors album except L.A. Woman), Doors manager Bill Siddons, Morrison biographer Danny Sugerman, close friend Frank Lisciandro (who offered a new theory regarding Morrison's death) and original Doors Robbie Krieger and John Densmore.
According to the filmmakers, the movie is an accurate representation of Morrison and his self-destructive lifestyle. But according to those who knew him best, it's nothing more than stitches of truths interwoven into a blanket of lies. "I found it to be intolerable," says Frank Lisciandro, who attended UCLA's film school with Morrison during the Sixties and was one of Jim's closest friends during the final three years of his life.
A documentary filmmaker, Lisciandro has compiled two volumes of Morrison poetry (Wilderness,The American Night), written two Morrison books (One Hour For Magic and the new Morrison: A Feast Of Friends) and made two movies with Morrison (Feast Of Friends and HWY). "Oliver Stone did not capture the essence of Jim Morrison," Lisciandro continues. "The quiet, sensitive and extremely intelligent human being that he was off the stage is never presented in the film. He wasn't frantic and manic as he is portrayed in the movie. Even when he did those extreme things, he did them with deliberation and forethought. He may have been spontaneous, but he wasn't crazy."
Among the movie's supporters is Doors guitarist Robbie Krieger, who served as a consultant on the film. "I think it was remarkably successful," says Krieger. "Most movies I've seen that try to depict the Sixties get it wrong. Other than Born On The Fourth Of July, this is the best Sixties-era movie I've seen."
Others involved with the movie question Stone's focus on the darker side of Jim Morrison. Doors drummer John Densmore, who recently published a book entitled Riders On The Storm and served as a consultant on the film, making an appearance as a recording engineer, says, "Oliver is interested in the self-destructive, creative, brooding personality one not unlike his own so he's focusing on that aspect of Jim. We were always complaining that the script was too dark, and that's actually why Ray [Manzarek] bailed on the movie."
It's ironic that the tall, spectacled Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek the one who always wanted the film to be made was the only one of the three remaining Doors who was not involved as a consultant on the Stone film. According to one of the film's producers, and the man who started the ball rolling way back in 1982, Manzarek talked himself out of the picture.
"There were moments of creative differences at the script stage in 1989," says co-producer Sasha Harari. "But it wasn't until Oliver walked in as the director that Ray started to freak out. The ironic part of all this is that I started this project eight years ago by talking with Ray, and we discussed different images and things like that, and Oliver was the one who came closest to Ray's vision."
The eight-year odyssey that preceded the actual filming is a story in itself. Sasha Harari spent three years talking with the Doors and the Morrison estate (Jim's family and his common-law wife Pamela Courson's family) trying to secure the rights necessary to make the film. In 1985, after finally convincing the remaining members of the Doors, Harari ran into problems with the Morrisons and the Coursons. "There was a pretty big rift between all these factions. After a while, I got tired of dealing with all of this by myself, and that's when I hooked up with Bill Graham."
Legendary rock entrepreneur Bill Graham explains: "I think during the dialogue between the attorneys and the parents, it was brought up that Jim had good feelings toward me in the early days, so it was suggested that I be contacted. At the beginning, I was somewhat of a mediator; I was someone who could mend the fences. It was like everyone was speaking English, but no one could understand each other. It was my job to translate."
By 1985, all the rights had been secured, and a deal was made with Columbia Pictures. Oliver Stone was Harari's first choice to write the screenplay, having been impressed with Stone's Oscar-winning script for Midnight Express. However, Stone's agent was not as impressed with Harari, and the offer never reached Stone's desk. "We got a first script from Randy Johnson, but it wasn't the script that Bill and I were looking for," relates Harari. "Meanwhile, Oliver had moved to another agency, so I called again in 1986, but he had begun work on Platoon."
By this time, Columbia had lost interest in the project, so the two producers moved to Imagine, and finally to Carolco. Coincidentally, Oliver Stone had signed a deal with Carolco, where he was to begin work on the film version of the musical Evita. But that project floundered, and when Carolco owner Mario Kassar told Oliver about the Doors film, things began to finally fall into place. Stone agreed to write the script (Randy Johnson also receives screen credit for his original script), and after the huge success of Platoon, he was also asked to direct.
The amount of time it took to put this film project together was almost twice as long as the Doors actual recording career. Formed in 1965, the Doors burned up the charts less than two years later with 'Light My Fire'. All in all, they had seven consecutive Top Ten albums during their five-year recording career, and topped the singles charts twice with 'Light My Fire' and 'Hello, I Love You'. It was the combination of their unique sound, Morrison's magnetic personality and his special gift for poetic lyrics that redefined the boundaries of rock & roll.
Doors guitarist Robbie Krieger believes their sound was nothing but an accident. "We never tried to be different. In fact, we tried to be like everybody else, but we were so bad at it, that it came out different."
The soft-spoken guitarist, who wrote most of the band's biggest hits, 'Light My Fire' (the first song he ever wrote), 'Touch Me', 'Love Her Madly' and 'Love Me Two Times', says their bizarre lineup had a lot to do with the Doors free-wheeling style.
"The fact that Ray had to play keyboard bass and organ [at the same time] forced him to play very simple bass lines with his left hand. That made it sort of monotonous and hypnotic which made me play a certain way, because I had to fill in the holes that appeared from not having a bassist or a rhythm guitarist."
The Doors rise to the top was almost as quick as Morrison's ultimate frustration with the trappings of pop stardom a frustration fueled by an insatiable appetite for alcohol. In fact, Morrison's love of alcohol is the one point that everyone agrees on and it's a large part of Oliver Stone's movie. "It was alcohol that killed Jim," states Densmore matter-of-factly. "I didn't know that he was an alcoholic until years after he died when I went to a bar that we used to frequent, and the bartender told me that Jim drank more than anyone he had ever seen."
Lisciandro concedes that his friend did have a problem. "He was drinking an enormous amount of alcohol every day, and how he managed to get as much work done as he did is amazing. But you have to realize that alcoholism awareness in the Sixties wasn't what it is today. We didn't see it as a lethal disease for a young man."
Morrison's hell-bent lifestyle and unpredictable behavior never hurt the Doors commercially. In fact, much of the Doors' myth stems from their incredible live performances, which, depending on Jim's mood, were either psychic trips to Nirvana or drunken journeys through hell.
The Doors longtime manager, Bill Siddons, who currently manages a variety of artists, including David Crosby and Graham Nash, notes that the Doors never embarked on any lengthy tours because of Morrison's penchant for the unknown. "The most extensive tour we did was three weeks of Europe in 1968. Other than that, we basically booked weekends. The reason for that is simple: Jim was too unstable. You could never predict what would happen after the third date."
In the film, Stone chose to focus solely on the wild side of Morrison. The actor chosen to accomplish that would have to look, act, sing and perform like the Lizard King.
Enter Val Kilmer and Doors producer Paul Rothchild, the man entrusted with bringing musical credibility to Kilmer's adaptation. "Val showed up with about eighty percent of the character learned," explains Rothchild. "I then spent five months teaching him the nuances and idiosyncrasies of Jim's vocals. I also spent a great deal of time talking with Val about Morrison's lifestyle, psyche and sense of humor. I felt that if he knew more about what Morrison was like on the inside, getting the emotions of the songs right would be much easier."
As for the actual concert footage that appears in the movie, Rothchild says that Kilmer truly captured the essence of Jim Morrison onstage. "Ninety-six percent of the time that you see Val singing on camera, you are hearing Val's live vocal. We didn't pre-record them or fix them in post-production they are live before the camera vocals."
Krieger adds that Kilmer's performance spooked him a few times. "If I was Jim, I would have freaked out when I saw Val, because there were times when he really caught Jim perfectly. He actually sang in the movie, and sometimes it's hard to tell who's really singing."
While the casting of Val Kilmer worked to everyone's expectations, the filmmakers experienced numerous problems with alleged friends and acquaintances wanting to be part of the project. "I ran into dozens of those types of people," admits Bill Graham. "You know, stories like, 'Jim told me one time when we were sitting on the side of a mountain in the Andes [laughs].' I definitely heard them all."
Sasha Harari agrees that they were literally smothered with "friends" of Morrison. "We had a lot of people who claimed to be Jim's best friend, and many of them wanted large sums of money. There were literally a hundred of these people, and some were very angry that they were not asked to participate. We interviewed 120 people and received 140 different opinions of who Jim was."
One person who would know Frank Lisciandro was approached by the filmmakers to be a consultant on the film on three separate occasions, but when his request to see a copy of the script was refused, he declined to become involved.
After seeing the movie, Lisciandro says that there are scenes of absolute fiction with the dialogue being the worst part of the movie. "To have Jim reciting poetry in everyday dialogue is really offensive, because Jim never uttered a song lyric or a line of poetry in conversations he never did. Now, because of this movie, Jim is going to be remembered as some guy spouting poetry that doesn't make any sense, because Stone edited different poetry together and has taken everything Morrison said out of context."
Doors manager Bill Siddons says he knew the film would be a cartoon-like joke as soon as he saw a draft of the script. "When I saw the script, I knew that it wasn't about the Jim Morrison that I knew."
"Jim was an absolutely hilarious human being," adds Lisciandro. "He had a sensational sense of humor and he would make himself the butt of jokes. He had such humility that he could do that.
That's the one thing that all of his friends remember to this day. Is this funny guy apparent in this movie? I didn't see him up on the screen."
Doors drummer John Densmore likes the movie, but also points out numerous fictitious moments. "There are a lot of things that I don't understand. There's nudity at the concerts that didn't happen, and there's police beating on kids like they were doing at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. That stuff never happened at our concerts. Oliver mixed it all up and threw it together in the movie."
Biographer Danny Sugerman, who has written several books on Morrison and the Doors Wonderland Avenue and No One Here Gets Out Alive (the original inspiration for the movie; Harari purchased the rights in 1982) believes that the movie is powerful, but it doesn't have much to do with the truth. "It's Oliver Stone's version of Jim's life. There is truth within it, but it's not the truth, and it contains numerous fictionalized accounts. He put in a lot of research, but there is considerable exaggeration."
One such incident is the scene where Morrison sobs in the Doors' office and mumbles quietly that he is having a nervous breakdown. In Stone's movie, this episode is used to illustrate Morrison's growing depression. Lisciandro, who was in the office at the time (his then-wife, Kathy, was the Doors' secretary), strongly disagrees with Stone's interpretation of the event.
"Jim said that remark more in jest," insists Lisciandro. "I think that particular 'nervous breakdown' lasted about forty minutes, or however long Jim wanted to bathe in everyone's sympathy. 'Having a nervous breakdown' was a line Morrison used all the time. It's like when he would get an idea, he would say, 'I think I'm having a cerebral erection'."
Another episode in the film has to do with a drunken Morrison on the ledge of the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles. Lisciandro points out numerous falsehoods with Stone's account of the incident. "We were shooting a scene for our film, HWY, and it was on the ledge of the 9000 Building on Sunset. I was there with our film crew, but Pamela was not there, and Ray nor the other Doors were there either. Jim didn't pull Pam out the window, because she wasn't even there, and he didn't contemplate jumping off the building and killing himself. We were just shooting a scene for our movie. Oliver Stone's version of that event is total fiction."
Paul Rothchild, however, defends the movie's treatment of events. "This film is not a documentary. If it was, it would be the most boring event on the planet. This is not a new concept; it's called dramatic license. You take basic events and truths and join them together. I personally feel that this is the greatest rock & roll movie ever made."
One scene that is not fictitious is the infamous 1969 Miami concert for which Morrison stood trial on a variety of obscenity charges. Morrison was eventually found guilty and sentenced to six months in jail (the case was on appeal when Morrison died). The Miami concert destroyed the Doors as a live act and hurt them commercially for a long period of time, and some people believe it was Morrison's way of shedding the rock star image he had grown to despise.
"That night didn't kill Jim literally, but it might have psychically," says Densmore. "I was really happy about it actually because that whole episode sort of cooled everything down a little bit. It certainly was a major turning point in the band's career."
"The movie is pretty accurate in regard to that episode," says Krieger, "although I don't think Jim slipped me acid prior to going onstage [as portrayed in the film], though that did happen every now and then."
Bill Siddons remembers the band becoming increasingly hostile toward Morrison after Miami. "It divided the band, and it really hurt Jim; that he could be put through all that while trying to do what he felt was his job as an artist. He knew what he was doing that night, even though he was totally drunk. He had a specific purpose in mind, and that was to challenge and confront his audience in a way that he had never done before. He went out and conducted a frontal assault on the audience and said, 'What are you here for?'"
The question remains: Did Morrison expose himself on that stage in Miami? Lisciandro, who had numerous conversations with Morrison about the concert, says, "He was basically telling the audience that 'I'm not here to entertain you, we're here to have an experience together.' He got a little carried away with it, and things got a little out of hand [laughs].
"Jim told me that he didn't expose himself," explains Lisciandro, "though he also said that he was too drunk to remember. But he didn't think he did. There were never any photographs that showed him doing it, and there was conflicting testimony throughout the trial."
Following the Miami debacle, Morrison turned his attention more and more towards his poetry and filmmaking something that is left almost entirely out of the movie. Lisciandro, who has compiled and released two volumes of Morrison poetry, admits that he did not realize his friend's poetic brilliance during Morrison's lifetime. "I now realize that he was a poetic genius. It's hard to look at the guy standing next to you at a bar, who has just downed his third beer, and think of him as a genius. You tend to think of him as just another drunk asshole drinking beer with you [laughs]. But I've come to appreciate Jim more as a poet over the years something that Oliver Stone failed to capture."
The film's producers defend the decision to downplay Morrison the Poet. "You can only push the poetry angle so far without sounding corny in a movie," explains Harari. "I do think we manage to project the guy as a poet. But we weren't about to make an esoteric movie about a guy like Rimbaud. Jim wanted to be recognized as a poet, but he never really accomplished that in his lifetime."
Bill Graham says that it all came down to Stone's vision: "The movie does not show, to the same extent, the private side of Jim and some of the things that might have been going on in his mind at that time. But I think Oliver's desire was to show what happens to a man when he lets Frankenstein take over."
The other controversy that has been debated since Jim's death is whether or not Morrison quit the Doors, or merely went to Paris on vacation. Robbie Krieger denies that the Doors broke up following the recording of L.A. Woman. "That's something it says in the movie that is complete bullshit. When Jim left for Paris, it wasn't the end of the Doors. There was no way that we wouldn't have done another album after L.A. Woman because that was a big turnaround for us."
However, the Doors manager, Bill Siddons, insists there is no doubt that Morrison quit. "That's not a rumor, that's a fact," he insists. "Jim said that he was leaving the band and was going to pursue other avenues for the foreseeable future. We actually auditioned other singers to replace Jim as the lead singer of the Doors, while he was in Paris. I even ended up managing the guy who was going to replace Jim. His name was Michael Stull. But after Jim died, there was no compelling reason to do it."
Jim Morrison's death on July 3, 1971, has also been the subject of much speculation and controversy. Rumors of a faked death first surfaced in Danny Sugerman's best-selling book, No One Here Gets Out Alive (co-written by Jerry Hopkins). "The idea in the book was not to provoke the reaction that Jim might still be alive," maintains Sugerman, who was fourteen-years-old at the time of Morrison's death. "The idea was to end the book on a note that Jim would have appreciated. I never thought millions of people would read the book and think that I was waiting for a call from Jim."
Sugerman's book offended those who knew Morrison best, according to Lisciandro. "Many of Jim's closest friends find that book very objectionable. I call it 'Nothing Here But Lots Of Lies,' because it's full of bullshit. You have to realize that despite what he says, Danny Sugerman did not know Jim Morrison. If you think that a fourteen-year-old can go in a bar and drink with someone, you're crazy. That never happened.
"I know for a fact that Jim did not like Danny," he goes on to say. "Jim told me on numerous occasions that Danny was a nuisance. But because Jim was a nice guy, he was kind enough to give Danny a few minutes of his time. Danny was always pestering Jim. So those stories of Danny having dinner or doing his homework at Jim and Pamela's apartment are hilariously ridiculous. That never happened."
Siddons was the only person in the Doors camp who flew to Paris and spent time with Jim's grieving widow, Pamela Courson. "I buried the man, so those 'Jim may be alive' rumors never held any water with me. Those were rumors started by people out to make a buck like Danny Sugerman."
Another Sugerman book, Wonderland Avenue, suggests that Morrison died of an accidental heroin overdose after dipping into Pamela's private stash. Lisciandro, however, has another theory that may make more sense, relating to Morrison's known fear of needles. "I tend to discount the overdose theory, because Jim was positively, definitely, not a heroin user," explains Lisciandro.
"I believe that Jim died of complications from alcohol, because we do know that he was on some prescription medication for asthmatic respiratory problems, and that medication mixed with alcohol can cause death."
Lisciandro believes the theory because Jim's death happened outside the reach of his American doctors. "None of Jim's doctors in the States would have given him this medication, because they knew he was an alcoholic. But in France, he might have gotten the medication. We do know for a fact that Jim was taking this medication, and the combination of that two could very well have killed him."
In the end, how Jim Morrison died is really unimportant. What is important is that Jim Morrison was a visionary and an artist who lived life to the extreme. Morrison's artistic mission was one of exploration a search for communal understanding. And that is the only true epitaph.
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