Depending on how the film is made, a compelling and engaging documentary could be made about any rock band. I like stories, and if the band members are interesting or quirky enough, there’s a movie to be made. But if the band happens to be one of the best and most important bands of the 20th Century, and if the people involved are truly weird and fascinating, and if the filmmaker is a true genius, then you get something like Gimme Danger, the story of Iggy Pop and The Stooges, directed by Jim Jarmusch. It’s a rock doc masterpiece.
Jarmusch is an indie film icon and has tackled a number of genres in his own inimitable style, from the vampire film (Only Lovers Left Alive) to the romantic comedy (Broken Flowers) to the gritty hitman movie (Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai). Not all of his movies hit, but more often than not they do. He’d made one rock documentary, the 1997 concert film The Year of the Horse which chronicled Neil Young’s 1996 tour, but that was only moderately well received. Gimme Danger is a full exploration of a band told through copious interviews and rare footage of the band performing. Since it’s The Stooges, you almost feel like the concert footage could have told the story on its own.
For those not already converts, the Stooges were an experimental, stripped-down rock band from Michigan who bridged the gap between the Velvet Underground’s meandering art rock and the birth of punk rock. Led by their frenetic lead singer Jim Osterberg (better known as Iggy Pop), the Stooges shot to the top of the hard rock scene and were very quickly left careening to the ground. Only producing three albums between 1969 and 1973, their influence was felt for decades after with their mix of crunching, distorted guitar and bass sounds, acid jazz noodling, and Pop’s high-energy, low-syllable singing. If you’ve not heard much of the Stooges, Gimme Danger will make you want to listen to nothing else for a good long while.
What makes Jarmusch’s take on the band so compelling is the way it starts as close to in media res as possible, with the band talking about their final, disastrous performances together in the mid ’70s and then hopping back to the beginning and exploring the end. Jarmusch wants us to know, from the opening few minutes, that the band imploded and that implosion is as important to their history as the music they made. Anecdotes are peppered in with animation and seeming digressions end up being part of the whole narrative of the piece. Since we know what eventually happened, we’re watching a rags to riches to rags type of story.
The band members themselves are endlessly fascinating and feel completely burnt out in a lot of ways, with Iggy Pop ironically seeming the least affected by the life, even though his descent into drug use is what caused much of the band’s turmoil. We learn about how each member fit in and why and how they learned to play the way they did. Initially, a group of dopers living the communal lifestyle, they eventually made experimental, heady thrash rock seem effortless in a difficult way.
Jarmusch himself appears only once, at the very beginning as he has Iggy introduce himself prior to the first interview piece, but you can feel his presence throughout, with his love of the band and their place in rock music history spilling out on every frame and through every story being told. This is a band that means something to him, and he makes it mean something to the audience.
I listened to the Stooges for a week straight following my viewing of Gimme Danger, and I’m guessing it’ll do the same for you. Search out this movie…and destroy.
4.5 out of 5 Burritos
Image: © Danny Fields c/o Gilliam McCain