Eagle Rock Entertainment
All Access Review: B+
In a very real sense, after Jim Morrison’s infamous Miami arrest on morals charges and public drunkenness, The Doors as a whole were subject to house arrest. The south Florida homecoming for Morrison at the Dinner Key Auditorium, packed with 14,000 people, was the first stop on The Doors’ 1969 tour, and it was a night nobody would ever forget. Perhaps it even signaled that the end was near.
Three sheets to the wind, and perhaps inspired by seeing the confrontational performance of the experimental theater group The Living Theatre the night before, the Lizard King was in no mood to sing. And so, during “Break on Through,” he began a confused rant that at once embraced the slavish adoration of the crowd – noting his Floridian roots – and then turned on them with blazing hostility, rebuking them as conformists and calling them “f**king idiots” and “slaves,” while expressing his love for a weirder and wilder locale, his adopted playground Los Angeles.
It’s all there on screen in the documentary “Mr. Mojo Risin’: The Story of L.A. Woman,” which follows the making of The Doors’ magnificent coda, the slice of gritty, sinister blues and dark, surreal jazz known as L.A. Woman that would turn out to be Morrison’s last studio recording. There’s Morrison threatening to expose his genitalia for all to see. There’s Morrison feigning oral sex on guitarist Robby Krieger. And then, of course, there are the clueless cops hauling away a bemused Morrison, who seems completely satisfied with the circus-like chaos and complete disorder he has so diabolically orchestrated. But, maybe, just maybe, there was more to Morrison’s actions than a simple desire to create all-out anarchy. By this time, Morrison’s notoriety had already become the stuff of legend – people had taken to calling them the “dirty Doors” as Manzarek relates in the film – and the alcohol was doing a lot of the talking, leading to arrests and tales, whether made up or true, of incredible hedonism. But, as Manzarek explains, Morrison had some questions for the Miami audience and everybody else who wanted a piece of The Doors, one of them being, “What do you want from us?” Morrison might have been asking the same question of himself.
As longtime music writer David Fricke argues, the implications of Morrison’s actions probably affected him the most. The threat of going to Rayford Penitentiary and losing his freedom, even if for only a matter of months, weighed heavily on a man who valued that above all else. In the short term, all the legal complications forced The Doors to cancel that ill-fated tour. Left with nothing better to do since they really couldn’t go anywhere to play – nervous venue owners didn’t want anything to do with such outrageous behavior and banned them from most of the halls in the U.S. – The Doors responded by going back in the studio to record what would become L.A. Woman, and “Mr. Mojo Risin’” offers a competent, if somewhat pedestrian, creation story.
The sessions, as producer Paul Rothschild tells it in vintage interview footage, did not begin well. Morrison seemed disinterested, and the music, at least to Rothschild’s ears, was uninspiring. Even Manzarek admits the playing was sub-par, and Krieger relates that Rothschild even felt “Riders on the Storm” sounded like lame cocktail music. In a move that stunned The Doors, Rothschild parted ways with the band, leaving The Doors to their own devices and top-notch engineer Bruce Botnick. The story of Rothschild’s departure and how it resulted in the band taking control of its music is handled with the utmost care, as all sides are given equal time. In fact, there is great honesty and detail that emerge from interviews with all the living Doors, Botnick and a cast of seemingly thousands.
Musicologists will wet themselves over the attention paid to the recording process behind L.A. Woman and the studio magic – which returned for The Doors when they left the drab, lifeless Sunset Sound studio for the livelier environs of their rehearsal and office space on Santa Monica Boulevard, where their music was “seeped into the walls,” as drummer John Densmore so vividly recounts – that gave birth to some of the most memorable songs in the band’s catalog. One moment, Manzarek is telling how the soft, rain-like piano parts for “Riders on the Storm” developed and how Elvis’s bassist Jerry Scheff, who sat in and played on L.A. Woman, was dumbfounded as to how to recreate thosee bass parts on his instrument; the next, the disagreement over whether “Love Her Madly” should have been the first single is rehashed, with Elektra Records founder Jac Holzman recalling how it raised the hair on the back of his neck and Krieger saying he thought it was “too commercial.”
Packed to the gills with revelatory and enthusiastic interviews and vintage photography and video footage of both candid, behind-the-scenes moments and blood-pumping live segments, “Mr. Mojo Risin’” is nothing if not comprehensive. The story of every song on L.A. Woman, with the possible exception of “Cars Hiss by My Window,” gets its own time in the sun, and the filmmakers take great pains to examine the bones and the guts of tracks like the stomping, swampy blues of “Crawling King Snake” and the simmering heat and seedy noir of “L.A. Woman,” a song that captures the essence of the city, it’s literary underbelly and its women and pays tribute to them all in Morrison’s vivid poetry. With Botnick at the sound board and Densmore, Krieger and Manzarek at their instruments, the musical evolution of key moments in each track are intensely explored, as are Morrison’s lyrics, pregnant with metaphor and primal, dream-like imagery.
What crashes the party is … well, the lack of anything resembling a good time. On occasion, “Mr. Mojo Risin’” begins to drift off and become tedious and dry, an academic paper come to life in documentary film form. While smartly emphasizing the actual blood, sweat and tears behind L.A. Woman rather than the sensationalism that seems to dog other Doors’ biographies, the filmmakers treat the subject matter with little wit and a seriousness that colors it in grey rather than the rich, bold hues and apocalyptic psychedelic paints the Doors brushed onto the canvas of their music. Still, the documentary doesn’t pander to the lowest common denominator. It is an intelligent and affecting history, especially as it relates to Morrison’s jetting off to Paris with girlfriend Pamela Courson after his vocals for L.A. Woman were done and the sense among friends and band mates that he wasn’t coming back.
One of the draws to this DVD is the appearance of a new Doors song, “She Smells So Nice,” included in the bonus features. A swinging, bluesy number that jumps off the dance floor of a southern backwoods juke joint, “She Smells So Nice” sweats heavily and steps lively as a cavalcade of Doors still pictures from days gone by passes through – that is before the song morphs into a slow-cooked, tantalizing stew of savory guitar notes, subtle brushed drums and neon electric keyboard lights. Even if the film isn’t quite as glorious or as transcendent as The Doors were, it does its job with workmanlike attention to detail and a tenacious desire to get the story right, to do it justice. And, in the end, isn’t that what we all want from a music documentary?- Peter Lindblad
Official Trailer from Eagle Rock: