The Stooges are “the greatest rock and roll band ever.” This statement, spoken in voiceover by director Jim Jarmusch, is presented uncritically in Gimme Danger, an affectionate portrait of the punk rock forerunners behind Raw Power and Fun House which skirts the line between documentary and hagiography. The film is Jarmusch’s first nonfiction work since Year of the Horse, a 1997 doc that followed Neil Young & Crazy Horse on the band’s 1996 tour. It’s been a long time coming for Jarmusch. A close friend of Iggy Pop, the director has featured the famed rock frontman in two of his films, Dead Man and Coffee and Cigarettes.
Jarmusch, who’s made his name off deadpan indies like Stranger Than Paradise and Broken Flowers, strips his narratives to the barest of bones, using minimalism to examine the spaces between his characters. What’s then surprising is that Gimme Danger, a film about one of the most cheerfully chaotic, volatile acts in rock history, is the iconoclast’s most conventional movie to date. It resembles a pretty good episode of VH1’s Behind the Music — the long-running series in which music acts rise, are burdened by excess, and frequently crumble under their own weight. Gimme Danger checks the usual rock doc boxes, but it succeeds because of its smashing subject matter. The Stooges may not be the greatest musical act in history, but they are one of the most lively subjects for a documentary.
The Stooges began on the outskirts of Ann Arbor, Michigan, where a young Iggy Pop (neé James Osterberg) grew up in close quarters with his parents, with whom he shared a tiny trailer. The nascent musician, whose drum set was so large his parents gave him the master bedroom, was influenced by the shows of his childhood, namely Howdy Doody and The Soupy Sales Show. A young Osterberg idolized Clarabell the Clown, the mute, unpredictable sidekick who would frequently spray Buffalo Bob Smith with seltzer. You never knew what Clarabell would do next. From Soupy Sales, the singer claims he learned how to write a song. Giving his audience advice on letter writing, Sales told them to keep correspondences under 25 words. Osterberg’s lyrics, as exemplified by “No Fun,” were equally concise. “No fun, my babe,” he sings. “No fun.”
Osterberg got his start as the drummer The Iguanas, a high school band who taught him the art of theatricality. The 69-year-old musician, whose Rabelaisian presence dominates the film, comments that one of the drawbacks of being a drummer is that you’re seated at the back of the stage — staring at your bandmembers’ butts. To make a statement, he would play on the tallest platforms he could find, hovering 10 feet above the stage. After leaving his band, he would join up with The Psychedelic Stooges, whose name would later be shortened following permission from the popular vaudeville troupe of similar name. In one of the film’s many uproarious asides, the group remembers calling the comedy trio up — only to be bluntly told that The Three Stooges didn’t give a damn.
Gimme Danger is at its best when it’s like the musical act the film is profiling: wild, woolly, and a bit unfocused. After briefly moving to Chicago and studying the blues, Osterberg wanted to ape the styles of the black artists who inspired him. He realized, though, that imitation could only go as far as flattery. “I smoked a joint by the river and realized I was not black,” he remembers. As the frontman of The Stooges, he invented the character of “Iggy Pop” after watching apes posture with torsos extended — hoping to embody a savage, primitive masculinity. Osterberg’s preference for performing sans shirt was inspired by the Egyptian pharaohs, a point humorously underscored with a clip of Yul Brynner in The Ten Commandments.
Jarmusch’s film expertly, if a bit too nostalgically, recreates the hazy days of the late ‘60s anarchist movement, when The Stooges became representative of the music scene that formed around the University of Michigan. The issue is that the director is perhaps too enamored of his subjects to truly challenge them, lacking a real critical distance from the period. Osterberg remembers the band, who shared a house together, as a collective — eating, working, and living in harmony. What’s not clear are the intergroup tensions that drove The Stooges, and the musician’s bandmates — James Williamson, Scott Asheton, and Ron Asheton — barely register as characters. Williamson, who resembled Elvis by way of Jack Kerouac, is a great musician but a less than compelling interviewee. Now 66, he comes off as a bit too nice.
Gimme Danger, structured in small anecdotes, essentially belongs to the same genre as all of Jarmusch’s other films: the existential hangout comedy. It’s less effective, though, when it exorcises The Stooges’ demons, which are storied enough to become faintly dull. The band’s frequent drug use, as well as their ribald onstage antics, continually broke them up. As the group’s breakout star, Osterberg was granted the mainstream success The Stooges, a decade ahead of their time, were denied; he would move on to other gigs. Osterberg became good friends with David Bowie, and their friendship would later be chronicled in Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine. The band remembers the 1998 film, a love letter to glam rock, as reigniting interest in their careers. Five years after the movie’s release, The Stooges were invited to play Coachella.
The portrait of rags to riches is sweet and redemptive, but it’s difficult not to feel that Jarmusch is withholding. How did Osterberg’s bandmates feel about him becoming a household name while they dropped out of performing altogether? Williamson went back to school to study engineering, working as a record executive for Sony. Both Ron and Scott Asheton died, and the film is dedicated to their memory. Perhaps the greatest tribute to The Stooges, as the film illustrates, is its impact on the groups that would come after. The band, inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2010, influenced everyone from the Sex Pistols to The White Stripes. The Ramones got together not because the bandmates were brothers, but because they were the only students in their school who listened to The Stooges. That’s a hell of a legacy.