Director Jim Jarmusch’s latest music documentary Gimme Danger is an oft-funny collection of stories and images of the influential rock band The Stooges. It’s the sort of project one hopes could transmit the raw power of The Stooges from the screen to the audience. With narration by Iggy Pop, the living members of The Stooges, and a lot of animations, there is a lot to take in throughout, but it still feels as though there is something absent. Honestly, it kind of lacks the urgency from the filmmaker and the well-known energy of Iggy Pop – himself a frequent Jarmusch collaborator.
From the beginning we know that The Stooges don’t really “make it” in the traditional sense. As such, Jarmusch focuses on the history of the band from its earliest beginnings to their current state. Iggy Pop himself guides the film, mostly through his own eyes, and doesn’t skimp on admitting where things went wrong, and how the band’s perceived nihilism hurt their commercial success.
Iggy in the present sits on a golden throne in his home, wearing a shirt, pants, and bare feet. It’s like cozying up on his couch and listening to his stories: a pleasant reminder of his past mixed with a distant awareness of his advancing age. He is almost 70 years old this year, and is still lively and very funny.
The Stooges, on the other hand, could be found through archive footage; James Williamson apparently did his part in a bathroom. With so many of the original members dead, it would be difficult to imagine that Williamson and Iggy Pop would tour together as The Stooges, but to see footage of Scott Asheton talking about his time in the band, while sitting beside Iggy, is at once hard to watch and valuable. Their sustained friendship up to Scott’s death anchors Iggy in the reality of the documentary’s meaning. To see a concert film or read a biography is one thing, but it’s different to see them interact off stage, as friends, telling their own stories. The film honors the memory of all of The Stooges, rather than pit them against one another.
Their interactions as a band are rooted in experimentation, art, and learning together through rock and roll. Growing up in Ann Arbor during the 50s and 60s Iggy Pop found himself heavily influenced by the work of black musicians and counterculture. His writing philosophy was to write lyrics with 25 different words or less. The idea works, as evidenced by one of the funniest lines from the film: “I smoked a big joint by the river one day and realized that I was not black.” I love him.
The Stooges found themselves in the right places at only some of the right times: managing to tour with The MC5, getting signed to Elektra Records, a chance to play at the Democratic Convention in 1968, having John Cale from The Velvet Underground produce their first record. They logged time at The Chelsea Hotel, played to unsuspecting audiences, and took a lot of drugs. The Stooges lived like many of their peers, but with addiction came consequences. They eventually had to move on, but later reunited as Iggy and The Stooges.
Jarmusch probably could have used more of their music. At times, the film drags as it is packed with talking and still images from their original shows, sometimes repeated. Iggy’s stage dives never get old, though. If the film is most successful at anything, it ensures that The Stooges do not remain a merely “influential” footnote in the history of guitar music: they were digging to unearth something that general audiences were not prepared to hear. They were the ones who influenced punk before anyone had a word for punk, yet The Stooges to this day reject all categorization. The Stooges’ induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2010 was a just victory for the friends, punctuated by Iggy’s speech and his glitter-inked index cards. If the documentary had been finished before so many of the members passed, it probably would feel very different.
So while I can’t make up my mind about some aspects of the film, it only reaffirms my appreciation of The Stooges. Video clips of other bands playing their songs enforces the power of their energy; Kim Gordon is clearly channeling Iggy as she performs “I Wanna Be Your Dog” in 1989. The film is without a sense of urgency, and feels more like their first record: important, but still not the same as the raw power of The Stooges’ live show.