March 1st may be more famous in Doors history as the date of the Miami incident, but March 1, 1991 saw the release of Oliver Stone’s movie “The Doors.” Fans either love or hate the movie, so here’s some background on “The Doors.”
Rumors of a Doors movie had been circulating around Hollywood since the late ’70s, drawing interest from ’70s wunderkinds such as Brian DePalma, Martin Scorsese, and William Friedkin (“The Exorcist”) as potential directors. Early contenders for the part of Jim Morrison included John Travolta and Richard Gere, and as the project moved into the ’80s, the rumor mill floated names such as Tom Cruise, Michael Hutchence, and even Bono from U2. But the project never seemed to get off the ground until a young UCLA film school graduate named Randall Jahnson came aboard.
Columbia studios and Sasha Harari at the time owned the rights to a Doors movie and hired Jahnson to write the script. Jahnson talked with all the surviving members of The Doors, Morrison and Ray Manzarek’s film school friends, and Morrison’s parents. The screenplay also emphasized the shaman element. (You can read my interview with Jahnson starting at “Randall Jahnson Interview Part I,” as it provides interesting detail into the script of “The Doors” and how it was later changed.) The original script that Jahnson wrote was never produced, but Ray Manzarek remembered Jahnson and his screenplay.
In the late ’80s Oliver Stone became involved with the project, and at a party Stone met Manzarek who mentioned Jahnson’s script. Stone tracked down a copy and liked it enough to make it the starting point for his movie. The finished screenplay was a hybrid of the work written separately by Stone and Jahnson, and it probably wasn’t what either of them would consider ideal. For his part, Stone wanted to use much more of Jim Morrison’s poetry than what appeared in the finished film, but due to a falling out with Pam Courson’s parents, he couldn’t get the rights. Jahnson’s screen credit is listed as J. Randal Johnson.
With a script in hand, Stone started his Doors movie, and he hired Ray Manzarek, John Densmore, Robby Krieger, Paul Rothchild, and Bruce Botnick as consultants. At first Manzarek and Stone seemed to be getting along fine, and Stone even recreated a couple of shots from Manzarek’s “L.A. Woman” music video to use in the film.
But after some early cooperation, Stone had a falling out with Manzarek, and Ray was banned from the set. Stone accused Manzarek of wanting to be the “co-director” of the film, and Manzarek allowed that he had a lot suggestions for Stone, adding that he thought they were both artists and he thought he’d have more input into the film than Stone wanted. Thereafter Manzarek did interviews saying that the Jim Morrison portrayed in the movie wasn’t the Jim Morrison he knew, and that the film was a “white powder” project, inferring that cocaine usage influenced the making of the movie. Densmore, Krieger, Rothchild, and Botnick all stayed on as consultants and even had cameos in the finished product.
When “The Doors” saw theatrical release on March 1, 1991, the reviews, both critical and popular, weren’t complimentary. Roger Ebert said in a review that if the Jim Morrison he’d seen in the film had survived that night in Paris he would have died by then anyway. Viewers of the movie also weren’t impressed, with one audience member saying he “couldn’t wait for the guy to die,” meaning Morrison. Furthermore, because Stone had lost the rights to most of Morrison’s poetry, the movie relies too heavily on using Doors lyrics as dialogue. The one positive aspect of the film is Val Kilmer’s portrayal of Morrison. Kilmer practically embodied Morrison and everyone from Patricia Keneally to John Densmore was impressed by Kilmer’s acting.
If you’re looking for an alternative opinion on Stone’s “The Doors,” perhaps Stone was trying to illustrate an aspect of the ’60s, that being late ’60s hedonism, but while trying to get in a universal idea he lost Jim Morrison and The Doors in the process.
Originally published February 29, 2016.