This is a reprint of our review from the 2016 Cannes Film Festival.
It’s a little weird that “touching” is the first word to come to mind after watching “Gimme Danger,” considering it’s a documentary about infamous prototypical punk rockers, The Stooges. The raucous, wild, and disruptive energy one would expect can be traced in Iggy’s words and in the vintage footage of the band’s cacophonous, messy concerts from the late ’60s and early ’70s, but these words hardly describe the driving force of the documentary. Then you look at who’s behind the lens and conclude that it was impossible for this documentary not to be touching.
Jim Jarmusch, who also came to the Cannes Film Festival this year with his new feature “Paterson” (our review), has a deep and long love affair with The Stooges and with Iggy Pop — the musical icon and frontman has featured in “Dead Man” and “Coffee and Cigarettes,” besides being a good friend with the director in real life. A text preamble describes The Stooges as “the greatest rock band in the world” and the respect is tangible in “Gimme Danger,” a documentary that’s at its most effective when reverberating with warmth from Iggy and other band members reminiscing about the past and ex-members.
That approach is both a curse and a blessing. As a tribute, “Gimme Danger” is essential viewing for Stooges fans. As a compelling rockumentary, or even for fans of Jarmusch alone, what’s lacking is that glued-to-the-screen absorption that comes with the director’s feature work. Jarmusch interviews Iggy Pop (born, and introduced as, Jim Osterberg) who takes us through all of the band’s fluctuations; how it all began with brothers Scott (drums) and Ron Asheton (guitars) and Dave Alexander (bass) after Iggy came back from Chicago to Detroit, realizing that his style didn’t fit the blues scene regardless of how much he was influenced by it. “I smoked a big joint by the river and realized I wasn’t black” cackles Iggy to the camera. Looking like a beaten-up leather doll that’s been stitched over a gazillion times and took one too many turns in the sun bed, Iggy is like a human painting of compelling style and charisma. With his signature deep voice still silky considering the LSD and joints over the decades, he makes for a very easy documentary subject. Just turn the camera on, point and watch the fireworks.
To add a little pizazz, Jarmusch does make fun use of some animation for reenactment purposes, including a great moment that sees the band rehearsing in the early days. Old and current band members and supporters are part of the doc’s talking head catalogue, of which the most fascinating are bassist Jimmy Recca and James Williamson. The latter’s story of leaving the band after 1973’s Raw Power and becoming a Sony executive only to rejoin the band in 2009 is one of shiniest diamonds in “Gimme Danger.” Interestingly enough, Jarmusch skips most of what made the band and its raucous leader so uncategorizable when they exploded onto the scene, with archive footage only teasing what ardent fans already know. That’s why “Gimme Danger” might surprise some viewers as it’s relatively low-key in terms of showing who the band really was, choosing, boldly but perhaps a little blandly, to focus on the soul and thought processes that went on behind-the-scenes.
“We were real communists, man” says Iggy multiple times, slapping away the notion that the band was riding on his coattails. There’s a clear agenda here with the way Jarmusch and Pop approach the documentary: let’s show them the inner workings of The Stooges rather than the exterior flair, and fuck it if that’s not what audiences were expecting. So, while not an experiment in style or multi-layered structures like “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck,” there’s still something reverently commendable in the straight-line approach. At times, Iggy is all over the place as he reminisces, but mostly he’s in zen mode, and things get even more down-tempo when he opens up about the death of Ron Asheton in 2009, which affected the band tremendously.
As for the featured music, the classic “I Wanna Be Your Dog” is the most readily recognizable and influential song to come from the Stooges, but it being used so much — way more than “Gimme Danger” for example — could be considered a slight fault and exercise in monomania. The upside to that is that it’s so freakishly contagious and brilliant, it’s difficult to resist. Also, keep your eyes peeled for a great moment when bassist Mike Watt talks about the influence of Todd Haynes‘ “Velvet Goldmine” in getting the Stooges back together after decades of being disbanded.
Even if you don’t agree with Jarmusch’s introductory claim that The Stooges are the greatest rock and roll band ever, there’s still a lot of pleasure to be gleaned from “Gimme Danger;” most of it coming from Iggy’s love of the band, the music, and inability to be anyone but his incomparable and uncompromising self. [B]