A classic needle drop is all it takes to make a movie a classic. Whether it’s an already fantastic film made even better or a bomb built up to a better standing, finding the perfect musical accompaniment can elevate any scene of cinema into pure gold. In that respect, there are few bands better equipped for the perfect needle drop than The Doors.
Formed in Los Angeles just as the 1960s were coming into their own, The Doors are immediately evocative of a very specific place and time in pop culture: psychedelia, Vietnam, blues, California, and palpable danger being just a few key moments of the time that are perfectly underscored by Jim Morrison’s growl, Robby Krieger’s jazzy fingerpicking, John Densmore’s frantic rhythms, and Ray Manzarek’s haunted carnival organ. If you’re in immediate need of a shorthand for ’60s counterculture, the fog of war, or a psychedelic trip, The Doors have a song for you.
So it’s no surprise that a number of directors have utilised these connections over the years. But perhaps even more interesting is when these songs are used in setting for which they were never intended: soundtracking the initial forays into desert island survival, discovering aliens at your local pub, teaching children the ferocious power of rock music. It turns out that The Doors’ music isn’t just tied to a specific time, but adaptable when juxtaposed against a somewhat bizarre backdrop. Sometimes The Doors’ music is used to create a moody atmosphere, and sometimes it’s used just because it rocks hard.
Today, we’re looking at seven films that used the power and swagger of The Doors music to elevate themselves to a higher level. The surviving members of The Doors haven’t been shy about leasing out their music after Morrison’s death, but it had the positive effect of introducing brand new generations to their legendary catalogue. Whether the movie was good or bad, all were in debt to their perfectly timed inclusion of The Doors.
Seven films made better by The Doors:
1. ‘The End’ – Apocalypse Now
Let’s get the big one out of the way first. Perhaps the most masterful use of The Doors’ music to ever appear in cinema is during the opening sequence to Francis Ford Coppola’s epic war film Apocalypse Now. How do you convey the immense gravitas of war and the disorienting feeling of discombobulation that comes with having survived it for so long? How about a 12-minute crescendo featuring references to Oedipus Rex?
‘The End’ is one of The Doors longest and most frightening compositions, playing into their absurd theatricality and insane poetic bent that would later show up on ‘When The Music’s Over’ and ‘Riders on the Storm’. There are few images in cinema more iconic than Martin Sheen’s disembodied head as the Vietnamese jungle goes up in flames, but wouldn’t nearly have the same impact without Jim Morrison’s heady quasi-narration.
2. ‘Touch Me’ – School of Rock
Jack Black has probably done more for rock and roll in the modern-day than just about anyone in the world of entertainment. An ardent music lover favouring the classic sounds of the 1960s and ’70s hard rock, Black is to film what Dave Grohl is to music: a giddy fanboy who fully believes in the power of rock to change the world. He’s got such an established persona that writer Mike White basically wrote an entire film around his manic man child.
Black’s infectious energy and eternal likability makes you forget that he’s kind of a dick during most of School of Rock, taking advantage of his friends, school kids, and their parents to further his dream of rock and roll stardom. But none of that registers when he starts teaching the kids rock songs, and when it comes to young pianist Lawrence, Black wisely goes with some of the trickiest keyboard lines he can think of: Ray Manzarek’s ascending intro to ‘Touch Me’.
Is this the appropriate song to be teaching a 13-year-old? No. Is it an awesome keyboard intro that perfectly fits the scene? Absolutely.
3. ‘Light My Fire’ – Cast Away
Tom Hanks has at least one other notable film with some prominent Doors songs, but I am loathed to discuss Forrest Gump by virtue of it being an awful movie. Instead, let’s set the scene elsewhere: Tom Hanks is has landed on a desert island, and knows almost zero survival skills. But he knows he has to make fire. His initial attempts are futile, but through some grit and determination, he gets a spark going.
A heavy-handed director would probably soundtrack the jump cut from Hank’s initial spark to his full-on fire pit with the actual ‘Light My Fire’ track and call it a day, but Robert Zemeckis wisely avoids the non-diegetic sounds in favour of Hanks singing the words himself in a loopy and joyous stupor. Underscoring his slow descent into madness while still being a relatively triumphant moment for his character, Hanks gives it all he’s got, even if he sounds more like John Belushi than Jim Morrison.
4. ‘Alabama Song (Whiskey Bar)’ – The World’s End
There are few directors who have perfected the needle drop like Edgar Wright. A walking musical encyclopedia, Wright cuts his films like a DJ, oftentimes basing entire scenes off the rhythms and arrangements of his favourite songs. He’s cast a wide net, including techno, blues, folk, and jazz songs into his films, but Wright knew the perfect song to soundtrack the surreal extraterrestrial pub crawl of his final film in The Cornetto Trilogy, The World’s End.
‘Alabama Song (Whiskey Bar)’ is actually an old school Kurt Weill composition used in a few of his plays during the early 20th century. The classical-by-way-of carnival oompah atmosphere perfectly echoes the bizarre turn of events that Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and their group of former compatriots find themselves in as they relive the bar-hopping of their youth. There was always something slightly alien about The Doors’ music, and now we get to make that connection in all its Gonzo glory.
5. ‘Peace Frog’ – The Waterboy
I can probably pinpoint the exact reason’s why I am an ardent defender of the Adam Sandler vehicle The Waterboy, a film that’s commonly considered a cinematic turd: I first saw it when I was about 10 years old playing pee-wee football myself, so it’s hard to think of a more appropriate target audience for Sandler’s nonsense-jabbering ‘Excited Southerner’ character.
‘Peace Frog’ is one of The Doors’ funkiest and most elastic workouts, and here it soundtracks a despondent group of cheerleaders and the team mascot getting sloshed on liquor in preparation for another hopeless season of loserdom from the South Central Louisiana State University Mud Dogs. The connection between The Doors and excessive drinking is perhaps a bit uncouth, but to be mad would be to take this film way too seriously, so do what I do and turn off your brain while watching this.
6. ‘Break on Through (To the Other Side)’ – Deliver Us From Evil
2014’s Deliver Us From Evil is not a very good film. It certainly has its moments of creepiness, but for the most part, it’s a largely incoherent, poorly written, weirdly boring, and unintentionally funny mess of a film. It does have one thing going for it, however: it’s got a whole bunch of Doors songs in it.
‘People Are Strange’ and ‘Riders on the Storm’ are integrated to wring all the obvious disturbing qualities of their narratives, but the silliness-to-creepiness ratio is at its best when one of the characters is trying to dig through the floor and recites the lyrics to ‘Break on Through’ while doing so. The song reappears at the end credits, but I have the feeling that all the dialogue in the movie should have just been Doors lyrics.
7. ‘Five to One’ – Cruella
A more recent addition to The Doors cinematic legacy, Dinsey’s 101 Dalmatians prequel Cruella, starring a twitchy and maniacal Emma Stone, is a weirdly dark Disney film, although (spoilers) I suppose the death of a parent is actually right up Disney’s alley. Along those same lines, if you’re going to introduce a villain, there’s only one potent Morrison lyric that does that job perfectly: “No one here gets out alive”.
So when Stone’s drunken pre-evil Cruella de Vil drunkenly redecorates haute couture designer Baroness von Hellman’s window display, The Doors’ ‘Five to One’ soundtracks both her icy entrance and her foreboding danger. Luckily Cruella gets away with it, and it was fascinating to hear the most generic of corporate overlords at Disney actually go with a fairly appropriate deep cut from The Doors’ catalogue.