OLIVER STONE is fascinated - morbidly, perhaps - with the 1960s. His most popular film, "Platoon," was a grunt's-eye-view of the Vietnam war, and "Born on the Fourth of July" chronicled the devastating effect of that war on the home front. His next movie, just going into production, is about the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the theories surrounding it.
So it's not surprising that Mr. Stone has made a film about Jim Morrison and the Doors, one of that decade's most celebrated rock groups.
True, the Doors were not part of a war or a political movement. But they weren't just a rock band, either. They stood for something, or rather many things - the best and worst the '60s had to offer. They had energy, imagination, and a sense that anything was possible if you opened your mind and your heart.
The trouble was, Morrison opened his with drugs and alcohol, swamping his talent in an orgy of abuse that killed him while he was still in his 20s.
Morrison wasn't the greatest singer, songwriter, or band leader during the period of "psychedelic" sounds that dominated American rock in the late '60s and early '70s. Others had more expressive voices, if not smoother ones, and others developed more original styles and provocative lyrics. What did distinguish Morrison was the driving musical power he encouraged in the Doors, and the conviction he poured into the emotionally extravagant songs he crooned, belted, and shouted. He had a passion for excess, and made that passion the cornerstone of everything he did.
Stone appears to see Morrison as a classic American antihero.
He uses the singer's troubled and troubling career as the vehicle for an ambitious journey through the flamboyant "youth culture" of the '60s, and at times he conducts the journey well, painting a reasonably complex portrait of a turbulent and complicated time.
But the movie is weighed down by its enchantment with the mythology, as opposed to the reality, of Morrison's life - a mythology that needs to be explored, not simply reproduced on the wide screen.
In its last half-hour, "The Doors" finally gets beyond rock-star mystique, showing the group's popularity and influence while at the same time revealing how tragically Morrison's life was veering out of control. But Stone doesn't keep enough critical distance from the Doors or the psychedelic buzz that surrounded them. He seems interested more in bringing the '60s back than in figuring out what they really meant.
As a film stylist, Stone shares Morrison's interest in breaking away from convention, and at times he frees his movie from the usual Hollywood formulas, gliding through time and space with exhilarating ease - call it psychedelic if you want, but it's more exciting to look at than anything else around. Stone is less inventive at scene-by-scene storytelling, though.
Much of the screenplay (by Stone and J. Randal Johnson) plods along in a surprisingly ordinary way, parading us through the ups and downs of Morrison's career as if everything that happened to this guy was automatically fascinating.
Val Kilmer gives a performance so vivid you'd almost think Morrison was back; and the supporting cast is solid, especially Meg Ryan as Morrison's girlfriend and Kyle McLachlan as a loyal member of the band. (Seeing the star of "Twin Peaks" in a pageboy haircut is almost worth the price of a ticket.)
The picture would be a lot stronger if director Stone did a more thorough job of showing how and why Jim Morrison's quest for self-liberation became ensnared in the false glamour of self-destructiveness.