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Jim Morrison: Back to the Sixties, Darkly

Los Angeles Times, January 7, 1990

The storm still swirls around a generation’s ultimate bad boy as Oliver Stone prepares to bring his story to the screen

DoorsNearly 20 years after his death, Jim Morrison–enigmatic lead singer of the Doors–is headed for a theater near you. It hasn’t been an easy resurrection.

Like Morrison himself, the journey of his life story to the screen has been dark, troubled and complicated.

A decade-long quest, it’s been dominated by furious disagreements between the three surviving Doors and members of the Morrison estate. Some of the fighting centered on the controversial Morrison biography, No One Here Gets Out Alive–which the estate detests. It wasn’t until legendary rock impresario Bill Graham entered the fray in 1985, acting as a kind of mediator for the Morrison estate, that all the necessary dramatic rights were acquired.

Throughout the battles and beyond, projects were announced and unannounced. There were meetings with a slew of top producers, directors and actors. Several studios were involved.

Ultimately, the project made its way to film maker Oliver Stone, who was a soldier in Vietnam when he first heard the Doors’ music. “It blew me away,” remembered Stone, who maintains that “on the broadest possible level, Jimmy Morrison’s story represents themes of seeking a new consciousness and new levels of freedom.” Stone is now readying the yet-untitled “Doors Project” for a March start date for Carolco Pictures.

It may seem odd that Stone, the industry’s best-known Vietnam veteran, is writing and directing a movie about a group that represented the ’60s radical movement that embraced everyone from war protesters to draft dodgers. As it turns out, Stone–whose wartime experiences inspired the Academy Award-winning “Platoon” (1986)–sees Morrison as a soldier who traversed the frontiers of the mind, for the sake of art.

“In his own way, he was very much on the front line. He was a warrior,” Stone said. “He was an outlaw rebel pushing at boundaries. A searcher who wrote about sex and death, two things any guy who’d been in Vietnam could relate to.”

The Morrison project garnered a certain cachet when Stone came aboard. It doesn’t hurt that his recently released “Born on the Fourth of July,” about a disabled Vietnam vet’s homecoming, is being touted as one of the front-runners in this year’s Academy Award race.

Still, the Morrison movie remains a filmic mine field, with obstacles including:

* The downbeat grittiness of the subject matter–including Morrison’s drug- and alcohol-induced exploits, his physical deterioration shortly after attaining stardom and his still-mysterious death of a heart attack at age 27 in 1971.

* Dealing with the sexually free ’60s in the nervous climate of the ’90s, including Morrison’s sexual experimentation (though he was not always able to “perform,” perhaps due to all the drink and drugs) and his tendency to shed all his clothes in the night and run naked through streets or across balconies and rooftops.

* Contract stipulations from the Morrison estate, which limit the screenplay’s ability to explore Morrison’s family life–which may or may not have been central to Morrison’s personal turmoil.

* The fact that, with few exceptions such as “The Buddy Holly Story” and “La Bamba,” both set in the ’50s and about the boys-next-door–few rock ‘n’ roll movies have been box-office hits. Consider last summer’s mega-bomb about ribald Jerry Lee Lewis, “Great Balls of Fire.”

* The dilemma of capturing the complexity and mystery of one of pop culture’s most controversial figures. Everyone who knew him–the Doors, Morrison’s drinking cronies, his countless romantic partners–seemed to know a different man.

As a result, the casting of Val Kilmer as Morrison seems a crucial factor. Kilmer, 30, was most recently seen as the renegade swordsman of “Willow.” He’s probably best known for his role as Tom Cruise’s competition, Ice Man, in “Top Gun.”

Well aware of the challenges, Stone made a surprising confession when he said: “You do not get out of these things alive–or whole. At the end of the day you risk being condemned. Ideally, I would rather not be involved in this movie.”

So why is he doing it?

“The fact is, I can’t help myself. I’ve become obsessed with Morrison.”

Stone is hardly alone. For the part of the charismatic Morrison, countless young actors grew their hair long, took their shirts off, donned love beads and mimicked a famed Morrison photo session. It seemed that everyone wanted to snare the role of the man who has come to represent the classic rock martyr–the leader of the legendary band that symbolized, perhaps more than any other, the dark, hedonistic side of the ’60s.

(Joan Didion, writing in the Saturday Evening Post, once dubbed the Doors “the Norman Mailers of the Top 40, missionaries of apocalyptic sex.”)

As the most daring of the ’60s bands–both cerebral and hard-driving–the Doors became a bridge to the heavy-metal ’70s and the new-wave ’80s. Little wonder that they continue to be profitable today, and that their many hits remain staples of the airwaves.

Morrison himself was the forerunner of the countless rockers who have since donned leather and their most brooding, pouty looks for the sake of album covers and posters.

Leather and pouty looks aside, no one has been able to approximate what set Morrison apart, for the erudite rock star was also a poet.

He was also a conduit–from the audience to their fantasies. “This guy is basically like a mirror. You can see yourself in him, somewhere,” explained Sasha Harari, the Israeli producer who got involved with Morrison’s story in 1982 and is now seeing it to fruition.

For years, Doors guitarist Robby Krieger fought the notion of a Morrison/Doors movie. “I’ve never been in favor of it. I just never believed that anyone could capture on film how it was, you know?”

Drummer John Densmore is philosophical. “I’m trying to hang on to the original intent. We don’t expect this movie to be the truth. As a friend of mine once said, they’re going to take your six-year career and squash it down to two hours and blow it up to the size of a two-story building. Is that going to be reality? No. But if it has a sense of truth, then it’s worth it. If it inspires individual and social consciousness in the ’90s, it’s worth it. But it’s terrifying!”

Unlike his comrades, keyboardist Ray Manzarek has wanted a movie–desperately. He spent years trying to make it happen, along with Danny Sugerman–his good friend, personal manager, consultant to the Doors and co-author of the notorious No One Here Gets Out Alive. Manzarek–who has a master’s degree in film from UCLA–also sought to be involved creatively.

Said Krieger, “I think Ray always believed that he could keep control over it, enough to make it his idea of the movie. And that’s why he wanted to do it so bad. I always tried to tell him, ‘Hey, you know, once it gets too big in Hollywood and everything, we’re going to lose control.’ ”

Manzarek, who proudly speaks of “the magical symbiosis” and “synchronicity” of the Doors, would like to see a movie that focuses on the group, as opposed to their lead singer. Stone, however, clearly sees this as a Morrison movie–in which the other three Doors are supporting players. Thus, there have been difficulties between the two men. Or as Manzarek put it, they aren’t on speaking terms, they’re on “shouting terms.”

Shrugged Manzarek, “Oliver’s passionate and I’m passionate. He has a vision, and I have a vision.”

Manzarek’s vision? “I see the picture as a joyous celebration of youth and life. It’s got a great upward arc and then, boom, the lead singer dies in Paris. And it becomes an American tragedy–showing not just what happened to the Doors, but what happened to America.

“I want the movie to be spiritual, transcendental, psychological, psychedelic and kick-ass rock ‘n’ roll. That’s all I ask for,” Manzarek said, smiling.

Co-producer Bill Graham, who booked the biggest acts of the ’60s at his famed Winterland and Fillmore arenas, is hoping for a paean to the era. Waxed Graham: “Those times were a once-in-a-lifetime. . . . Whether right or wrong, they were about blind hope. Obviously, not enough people got involved to make a change but there were significant numbers saying: ‘What’s wrong with this world?’ ”

For Stone, the Morrison movie continues his cinematic journey across the ’60s’ tumultuous landscape. (Still down the road is a final title in Stone’s promised trilogy on Vietnam.) Only this time, he’ll explore the flip side of “Born on the Fourth of July.” Based on the autobiography of Ron Kovic, “Fourth of July” traces Kovic’s evolution from gung-ho Marine to disabled vet to outspoken anti-war activist.

“This will be the other side of the ’60s,” Stone said. “Ron bought the military life. Jim didn’t believe in it. Ron was an Eagle Scout. Jim Morrison was no Eagle Scout. He was a bad boy–the rebel.”

To some, the rebel–the tortured poet–has been enshrined as a god, a modern-day Dionysus. (Recall that the Greek god of revelry and wine was capable of unleashing a terrible fury when he was denied. Recall, too, that he was dismembered–and later resurrected.)

Not surprisingly, the mythologizing of Morrison happened in tandem with the rediscovery of the Doors.

What kicked off the resurgence was the use of the Doors’ haunting 1967 song, “The End,” in the opening sequence of Francis Coppola’s epic Vietnam film, “Apocalypse, Now” (1979).

Then came the album “An American Prayer,” featuring Morrison reading poetry that had been recorded in 1971, with new instrumental backing by the Doors.

It was followed by the controversial 1980 tome, No One Here Gets Out Alive.

Also in 1980: the release of the Doors “Greatest Hits” album–which entered Billboard’s Top 10 chart.

The next year, the specially made “The Doors: A Tribute to Jim Morrison” aired on cable stations.

In September, 1981, Rolling Stone heralded Doorsmania–and Morrison’s status as a rock savior–with what was to become one of its most famous covers: the one boasting Morrison as cover boy and the headline, “He’s hot, he’s sexy and he’s dead.”

He was also destined to come to the screen . . . eventually.

Danny Sugerman was 13 when he began hanging out at the Doors’ L.A. office. He wound up handling their fan mail and keeping their scrapbooks. Later, following Morrison’s death and the disbanding of the surviving Doors, Sugerman became Manzarek’s manager.

(The surviving Doors recorded several albums after Morrison’s death and then went their separate ways. Today, Manzarek and Krieger continue to be active musically; Densmore is pursuing an acting career.)

Sugerman also became a co-writer of No One Here Gets Out Alive. This after rock journalist Jerry Hopkins (author of the Elvis Presley bio Elvis) spent five years working on a book about Morrison. When Hopkins couldn’t get a publishing deal, Sugerman went to work on the manuscript, giving it the point of view of a Doors insider.

The resulting bio, from Warner Books, is a riveting look at rock ‘n’ roll hedonism as lived out by Morrison. (Hedonism has international appeal: The book’s been published in more than a dozen languages.)

Since its publication, the tell-all has virtually divided the Morrison camps. After all, it doesn’t dwell on Morrison’s good points–like his sense of humor and warmth–or the non-scandalous events in his life. And there are those who question Sugerman’s credentials as an insider. (They maintain he was too young to have known Morrison as closely as he claims.)

The three surviving Doors defend the book–with reservations. “It was kind of like a People magazine listing of binges. But all the binges were true,” said Densmore. He was thoughtful as he added: “But there were things missing. Where was the guy who wrote, ‘Before I slip into unconsciousness/I’d like to have another kiss/another flashing chance at bliss’ (the opening lines to ‘The Crystal Ship’)? That guy didn’t make it into the book.”

Pamela Courson, Morrison’s longtime girlfriend, didn’t come off looking like the all-American girl, either.

Courson, who discovered Morrison’s body in Paris, was later able to attain common-law-wife status. When she died in 1974 at age 27 of a massive heroin overdose, her parents inherited her half-portion of the Morrison estate, which receives one-quarter of the monies earned by the Doors. Morrison’s own reclusive parents, who have never spoken publicly about their son or his career, received the other half of the estate.

All of Morrison’s personal property–including the many notebooks he filled with his poetry–is owned by the Coursons. It was Pamela’s father, Columbus (Corky) Courson, a former Orange County high school principal, who oversaw the publication of Wilderness: The Lost Writings of Jim Morrison (Villard, 1988). Another volume is currently being edited.

The Coursons, who have met with Oliver Stone, are understandably anxious about how the movie will treat their daughter’s relationship with Morrison. Though Morrison’s associates have described a romance that could best be called erratic, Pearl Courson believes that her daughter and Jim enjoyed a “tremendous love affair,” and were “destined to be together.”

There is no love lost between the Coursons and the Doors–and Sugerman. “Trash city,” is how Mrs. Courson described No One Here Gets Out Alive. She added: “Are you aware that for years, they tried to bypass the estate to get a movie made of that book?”

After the publication of No One Here Gets Out Alive, Manzarek and Sugerman met with interested film makers–sometimes without the blessing, or even the knowledge, of Densmore and Krieger. Today, both Manzarek and Sugerman insist that what they were trying to do was drum up interest in a Morrison project. “The book was just a jumping off point,” explained Manzarek.

It was Sasha Harari who optioned No One Here in 1982, for $50,000. As he quickly discovered, it was a double-edged sword: Hollywood wanted it, the Morrison estate didn’t.

Still, there were meetings. Harari talked with producer Allan Carr and director William Friedkin about doing the movie at Warners. Much to the horror of Sugerman, who remembered, “I begged Sasha not to bring Allan Carr in. I just didn’t think that the man who had produced ‘Grease’ and ‘Can’t Stop the Music’ could be sensitive to the story of the Doors.”

Sugerman did think that then-hot disco king John Travolta might make a good Morrison. So Sugerman introduced him to the Doors–and he and Manzarek squired Travolta around town, taking him to places where the group had hung out. But the other Doors balked. (“John was a nice guy and all that. But he was too nice. He didn’t have Jim’s dangerous edge,” Krieger recalled.) When it became clear that all the rights couldn’t be acquired for Travolta to officially play Morrison, there were talks about Brian De Palma directing Travolta in a fictionalized project, like the thinly disguised Janis Joplin saga, “The Rose.”

Still other film makers approached Harari and the Doors–and vice versa. Among them: Jonathan Taplin, Jerry Weintraub, Aaron Russo, Irving Azoff, Michael Mann, Francis Coppola and Martin Scorsese.

As all this was happening, a feature-length Doors documentary was in the works. (It was later abandoned because of efforts to make the feature.)

Morrison’s sister and her husband also announced their intention to make a Morrison movie. But first, stated Anne Morrison Graham and her then-husband, Alan Graham (no relation to Bill Graham), they would stage a rock opera in which seven actors would play various aspects of the Morrison persona. And they planned to make a 90-minute TV documentary.

The rock opera actually happened–at Gazzarri’s on the Sunset Strip, where the Doors had played 16 years earlier. Krieger still laughs about the night that two of the Morrison look-alikes showed up at a club where he was playing and got in a fight with each other.

Though the Grahams have since divorced, Alan Graham remains impassioned about one day making a film about his former brother-in-law. He has a company called Lizard King Productions–so named because of Morrison’s moniker as the Lizard King (from a Doors song). From time to time, Graham sends out announcements of pending projects. Currently in the works: the provocatively titled rock opera, “Who Killed Jim Morrison?”

Harari eventually dropped the option on No One Here Gets Out Alive, but he didn’t drop his interest. In 1985, he succeeded in acquiring the rights of the three Doors.

Then Tony Krantz and Tony Ludwig, of Creative Artists Agency, got the idea to bring rock promoter Bill Graham into the project–to deal with the Coursons and the Morrisons.

During the ’60s, the Doors often played Graham’s clubs in San Francisco and New York City. He still remembers their first show at Fillmore West in 1967, in which they were billed with the Jim Kweskin Jugband.

(The Doors were to have other memorable nights at Graham’s clubs–including the time Morrison showed up drunk at Winterland, took to the stage and started throwing the microphone around. At one point, it flew across the room, hit Graham and knocked him down.)

Graham eventually succeeded as a rock ‘n’ roll Henry Kissinger with the estate. “They were not against a movie coming out,” Graham explained. “They’re against the exploitation or the exaggeration of what really went down. After all, those children were reared by those people. The parents want to retain some dignity. It’s obvious that this wasn’t exactly Jack Armstrong who was coming through life in that turbulent time. We can’t whitewash Morrison, or Pam. But we want to respect them.”

As it turned out, there was an attempt at a whitewash when the Coursons tried, unsuccessfully, to invoke a clause that would have forbidden any depiction of their daughter using drugs. One stipulation they did get: Pamela Courson-Morrison cannot be depicted as having anything to do with Morrison’s death.

Then there is the contract stipulation involving the Morrisons: With the exception of a pivotal scene involving Jim’s childhood encounter with Indian shamanism, the parents cannot be depicted.

The Coursons and Morrisons also wanted–and got–assurances that the movie would not be an adaptation of No One Here Gets Out Alive.

Ironic footnote: eventually, the film makers bought the book’s research materials from co-author Jerry Hopkins. And Sugerman recently came aboard the film, as a consultant.

When all the rights were at last acquired in 1985, Harari put in a call to Oliver Stone’s agent. Would Stone be interested in scripting? On the very day Stone was scheduled to meet with Harari, Stone got the go-ahead to make “Platoon.” The next day he left for the Philippines.

From 1985 until the summer of 1987, the Doors project was at Columbia, under then-chairman Guy McElwaine. But when David Puttnam came to the studio, the project was dropped.

Within 24 hours, Harari got calls from United Artists and Warner Bros. He also got a call from Tony Ludwig, who had left CAA to become the president of Imagine Entertainment.

Ludwig had an immediate advantage over the studios: He knew all the parties involved, as well as the project’s convoluted history. In September, 1987, Imagine officially acquired the Doors Project. Imagine chairmen Brian Grazer and Ron Howard then began talking with prospective directors–including Oliver Stone. Recalled Stone: “But they passed me up. I think it was because I liked a draft of the screenplay that the Doors hated.”

As coincidence would have it, Stone eventually made his way to another project involving Morrison–and Danny Sugerman. Based on the autobiographical Wonderland Avenue: Tales of Glamour and Excess (William Morrow, 1988), it’s about a young man’s coming-of-age in the rock world, and the rock star he idolizes.

Meanwhile, over at Imagine, development costs of the original Morrison movie had exceeded $2 million. So Imagine struck up a production deal with Carolco Pictures, which became the financing entity. A few months later, Carolco signed Stone to a production deal, which is how Stone finally connected with the Morrison movie.

Stone thinks he may have looked at as many as 200 would-be Morrisons before opting for Val Kilmer.

Over the years, the candidates have included the aforementioned Travolta, Gregory Harrison, Michael Ontkean, Timothy Hutton, Steven Bauer, Christopher Lambert and, in the latest casting go-round, Michael Hutchence, of the rock group INXS, and Jason Patric, who was a dead-on Morrison look-alike in “The Lost Boys.”

(At one point, Kevin Costner’s agent even got a call. Morrison’s mother had seen him in a movie on TV and thought he bore an incredible resemblance to her son.)

As for Wonderland Avenue: a script is currently being written, following Sugerman’s first-draft. Stone, who will produce, sees it as a coming-of-age piece in which (a yet-to-be cast) Morrison will be a supporting character.

Stone is currently at work on the Morrison/Doors script, working from three separate screenplay drafts penned by Randy Johnson (“Dudes”), Ralph Thomas (“Ticket to Heaven”) and Bob Dolman (“Willow”) and stacks of transcripts. Budgeted at approximately $20 million, the film’s cast includes Meg Ryan as Pam, Kyle MacLachlan as Manzarek, Kevin Dillon as Densmore, Frank Whalley as Krieger, Billy Idol as Morrison buddy Tom Baker, Joshua Evans as the Doors’ manager and Kathleen Quinlan as one of Morrison’s love interests.

Star Val Kilmer–who’s a baritone, like Morrison–is working with former Doors producer Paul Rothchild, “laying down tracks.” Kilmer did his own singing when he played a rock ‘n’ roller in the 1984 comedy “Top Secret!” Time will tell, said Stone, whether he’ll again do his own singing. Until the movie comes out, there’s no way of knowing if Kilmer will be able to evoke the sensual presence that was a Morrison trademark. To be on the safe side, he’s getting instruction in dance and body language from dancer/choreographer/singer Paula Abdul.

Stone is trying to keep a balance–between man and myth, ’60s freedom and ’90s caution. (Stone acknowledged that he has already toned down some extremely lurid sex scenes involving Morrison and groupies.) “This won’t be easy. After all, we’re sailing in the wind of the Just Say No era, which is pretty simplistic. And there’s the matter of Jim. Everybody will disagree on what he was.”

Whatever he was, Morrison may have had an inkling of what was to come when he wrote: “Did you have a good world when you died? Enough to base a movie on?”

PHOTO from the Collection of Pat H. Broeske

Drummer John Densmore is philosophical. "We don't expect this movie to be the truth... But if it has a sense of truth, then it's worth it. If it inspires individual and social consciousness in the '90s, it's worth it. But it's terrifying!"