For anyone who's seen a rock 'n' roll movie other than the parody "This Is Spinal Tap," it's an automatic reaction: Even before actor Val Kilmer opens his mouth to sing as Jim Morrison, you cringe.
It has nothing to do with Kilmer, who's actually quite good. Though some filmmakers might argue otherwise, Hollywood has never handled rock with the proper care. On big screens and small, we've grown used to seeing shameless fawning and embarrassing inaccuracies -- and a slew of bad Elvis and Beatle imitators.
So the prospects of Kilmer adequately re-creating the late Doors singer Morrison, one of the most individual and enigmatic characters in rock history, seemed dismal. The warm surprise is that he pulls it off, turning in a creditable physical performance and offering an even more convincing vocal similarity.
The latter was achieved with great effort and attention to detail. Though Kilmer, like Morrison, is a baritone, he worked with original Doors producer Paul Rothchild to study the singer's delivery and particular intonation -- Kilmer even went over detailed phonetic breakdowns of Morrison's lyrics.
Kilmer's Morrison imitation is mated with the Doors' original instrumental tracks for seven of the film's songs, and the similarity is striking; from his screams at the start of "Back Door Man" to the erotic, breathless quality of "The Soft Parade," the differences between Kilmer's and Morrison's voices are slim and almost undetectable. The only thing the actor doesn't capture is the tangible other-worldly, urgent and, in some cases, desperate quality that gave Morrison's singing its distinction. Otherwise, Kilmer comes as close as you can imagine to the original.
Physically, Kilmer obviously studied Morrison's performing style and picked up the singer's stoned-out gait and glass-eyed gaze. He also replicates Morrison's trademark stage move, a halting high-step that looks like a cross between a leaping leprechaun and an Indian shaman in mid-war dance.
So while "The Doors" has other problems -- including a few historical inaccuracies -- Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison isn't one of them. His portrayal is a rare, and welcome, exception to a litany of poor performances in rock 'n' roll films.