Before we begin…
Have you ever entered a nerd argument that ends up in shoving and making fun of each other’s mothers? They usually involve seemingly innocuous topics like “Would Han Solo beat Captain Kirk’s ass?” or “Ruin a galaxy: Thanos or Darkseid?” or what leads us here today…
“What is the most underrated movie you have seen?”
That question brings quizzical responses, objective opinions, and vitriolic answers. If you are running with that answer, you better pack a lunch because trolling will ensue. Why? Because they think they have a right… or they feel you are wrong. Either way, time to back it up.
That’s what this new series from The Matrix will do: Back up subjective opinion into an objective discussion. What are some of the most underrated movies ever.
We call them “The Unders”…
Coal Miners Daughter. Walk the Line. Ray. Selena. Amadeus.
These films usually headline a list of musician–not musical–biopic luminaries (which some made our list of top 25 biopics ever). Add to that the smash hit about Freddie Mercury and his mates, Bohemian Rhapsody, and you have a salty list of must-see movies in a certain genre that competes with films of any genre.
(Not for nothing, Judy and Rocketman will make that list and soar near the top. You heard it here first.)
However, in that list of the top musician biopics ever made somewhere is an Oliver Stone film that doesn’t get the best critical reviews, but it critically important to the legacy of one of the best rock and roll front men of all time.
Of course, we are talking about The Doors and a glimpse into Jim Morrison’s plagued life played by a mesmerizing Val Kilmer. In this cinephile’s opinion, it may be the best music biopic you have never seen.
If you know Jim Morrison’s history, you know his childhood is a blur–and not by the intake of mushrooms. The man denied most of it to anyone. He ran from it most of his life. Regretfully, his maturity into adulthood was cut daftly short because of the aforementioned hallucinogens (among other many things). He was a troubled soul but channeled that pain, angst, and turmoil into a musical catalog that rivals any songwriter’s.
What we have left of his legacy is a Phoenix rising from dark ashes in 1967 to bring us one of the most heralded rock albums in history. “The Doors” summarized everything Jim Morrison was about — his misanthropic approach to life, his way of dealing with his place in this mortal coil, and a philosophical approach to what looms for us all as we experience in the 11-minute epilogue The End.
And then comes Oliver Stone to capture it all in 1991.
Portrayal or Possession
In Hollywood, many believe the ghost of Malcolm X hovered on the set of that movie. Denzel wasn’t playing a role; he was the man. The Doors may be one such take in that Val Kilmer tapped into something that even his role as Doc Holliday in Tombstone would like to do a double-take.
It is uncanny how he projects himself as the troubled troubadour of late ’60s rock. Most of the film–and rightly so–centers on Kilmer as Jim Morrison. He is captivating in every scene. You can sense Morrison’s pain. You can feel his escape into psychotropic drugs. You can believe the agony he lives in during every performance (some even sung by Kilmer himself) and every moment of film.
Morrison was known for almost creepy lyrics. A melancholy approach to writing because his soul was riddled with grief and dysphoria. And whether we learn about this muse from his childhood in the movie, his chance encounter with his the woman he believed to be his soulmate Pamela Courson (played soundly by Meg Ryan), or the years of protest and soul-searching that eventually led to his demise through LSD, cocaine, hard liquor, and possibly heroin.
The bandmates of ‘The Doors’ all had nice placement in this movie: Robby Krieger (Frank Whaley, ‘Det. Rafael Scarfe’ in Luke Cage), John Densmore (Kevin Dillon, ‘Johnny Drama’ in Entourage) and the great Ray Manzarek (Kyle MacLachlan, Twin Peaks and Dune). Each actor portrayed the role with finesse and tangibility. The script didn’t do them any favors, as the real bandmates have attested, but Stone never backs down from a controversy. And this film had plenty of it from creative liberties to outright aberrations.
Despite what legendary musicians thought and some critics wrote, this movie was a triumphant portrayal at one of music’s most enigmatic leaders. In fact, Kilmer was so convincing, dude had to take therapy just to get out of the role. (Really.) Now, that be more possession than anything, huh?
Impossible to Ignore
Much like Morrison truly is, and Kilmer definitely was in this role, this movie should be on everyone’s must-see biopic list. It’s completely underappreciated because of the angst people have for Oliver Stone or the disdain some literal biographical historians have for the license taken in the movie.
Whatever the cause, as someone who enjoys movies played by amazing actors and utterly hauntingly vantage points of who the real-life individual was, you need this movie in your life. The music catches you. The acting (mainly by Kilmer) takes you away.
We catch a glimpse into his drug-laden haze in which he did some of his most incomparable work, his internal conflict about doing what he did and delivering what he should–music that cuts through the clutter and speaks to your soul. Morrison was all about that. Kilmer says so in the movie.
However, there are countless distractions for a man who arguably had several voices in his head at all times. His flower child love interest encouraging him (while going through many lines of coke). His band motivating him to be the leader the world wanted (and they needed). His other two rendezvous with two starlets who absolutely weren’t in Morrison’s interests were dragging him down in the depths of a personal hell, one with the Velvet Underground nookie girl Nico (Christina Fulton) and the other with a sardonic witch (really) Patricia Kennealy (played magnificently by Kathleen Quinlan).
Whatever urged him through life, those urgings ended all too suddenly in 1971 when it was ruled congestive heart failure killed the musical ingenue in Paris. He is buried there but his soul, many believe, stays in America. Everyone knew the drugs didn’t help. Everyone knew his past demons didn’t help either. Regardless of how fast he died, this movie celebrates (and often eulogizes) how hard he lived.
Underrated and Underappreciated
Much like Jamie Foxx did with Ray Charles and Sissy Spacek did with Loretta Lynn, Val Kilmer was so persuasive and polarizing as Jim Morrison. The only difference is Kilmer didn’t walk away with any gold. You may recall that was the year of Silence of the Lambs, so no one but Anthony Hopkins was getting an Oscar.
But in a field that included Hopkins, DeNiro (Cape Fear), Beatty (Bugsy), Williams (The Fisher King), and Nolte (Prince of Tides), maybe Kilmer should have at least been nominated.
If not for anything else, Kilmer was that movie much like Morrison was The Doors. He captured the true essence of the esoteric singer/songwriter. Another coincidence was he left the states to Paris on a public indecency charge never to be heard from again. The movie is kinda like that too. Kilmer does the unthinkable and portrays the unimaginable, but once this movie went through its press junket, it hasn’t been heard of again either.
That should change and “break on through.” This is deserving of more than that. So is Jim Morrison and Val Kilmer.
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