I have vivid memories of the book No One Here Gets Out Alive being fairly popular in high school, particularly amongst the ‘bad’ girls. Otherwise,at that time, I never paid The Doors much mind beyond the occasional scoff at the girls seemingly incessant swooning over Jim Morrison, already dead for almost two decades.
Not until the release of Oliver Stone’s movie The Doors in 1991 did I become familiar with the story and the band. I have a few very specific memories of that experience, the first being that I liked to movie, and subsequently, that I liked The Doors and their music. I also recall that there were many nay-sayers at the time of its release, particularly in regard to its historical accuracy, with the surviving Doors band members as well as people who knew Morrison personally being perhaps the most outspoken critics.
This year I discovered When You’re Strange, a documentary released in 2009 featuring real footage of The Doors themselves and narrated by Johnny Depp. Naturally, there were similarities in both stories, while at the same time there were very distinct differences, going beyond the obvious; the theatrical versus the documentary.
In defense of the Stone film, it was a well told story. After seeing When You’re Strange, in addition to doing a bit of reading on the subject, the factual inaccuracies become more pronounced. Stone took creative liberties… as any theatrical film director would. In the case of Oliver Stone, his love for the era is no secret, and his great knack for storytelling makes The Doors an entertaining and interesting flick. Again, the story is well told, and achieves a well-woven storyline which creates an almost larger-than-life account, which was likely Oliver Stone’s intention.
Val Kilmer’s portrayal of Jim Morrison has also come under critical fire. I think Kilmer delivers a strong performance, and was well suited for Stone’s ‘vision’ of The Doors. In contrast, I felt When You’re Strange gave a different, grittier, and more historically accurate insight into the story of the band. Perhaps the biggest, and most remarkably significant differences in the two films is their portrayal of Jim Morrison.
The Jim Morrison portrayed by Val Kilmer just wasn’t deep and dark enough. It lacked a certain sharpness that seems to have existed in the real Morrison. Yes, he was definitely a drug and alcohol abuser, and likely reckless in all aspects of his life to the point of excess, but Kilmer’s Morrison is too soft, too loopy and loose like a ‘stoner’ type guy. This has likely more to do with Oliver Stone’s direction than Kilmer’s acting ability, but it falls short just the same. It dabbles in moments of the angst and excess – or as Doors drummer John Densmore refers to Jim, ‘the madman’ – but still leaves us with a seemingly happy-go-lucky protagonist, more akin to a Jeff Spicoli character than the real Jim Morrison.
In contrast, When You’re Strange gives us a glimpse of the real Morrison, literally, somehow balancing sloppy drunk with something darker, more precise, and far more erotic than some dopey stoner guy. Since Morrison and Doors organist Ray Manzarek were both film students, they left a treasure trove of ‘real’ footage that shows a very different Morrison. As outwardly wasted as Morrison was in so many appearances and performances, he was also well read in the writings of authors like Nietzsche and Rimbaud, no light fare. While Stone’s Morrison was mischievous, it seems the real Jim was far more sinister, dark and devious, which Stone’s movie failed to convey.
Again, I like both films, and I feel that both have their place. For me, both tell a great story, and in many ways the ominous quote from Johnny Depp sums up the life of the iconic Jim Morrison… “You can’t burn out if you’re not on fire”.
I highly recommend seeing both films and drawing your own conclusions, as I believe both have their own unique perspectives. I think to call one ‘better’ than the other would simply depend on which side of the door you are standing. Pun intended.
Additional source material:
“Riders On The Storm” by John Densmore
“No One Here Gets Out Alive” by Jerry Hopkins and Danny Sugerman