Filmmaker Jim Jarmusch refers to his latest project, the documentary “Gimme Danger,” about the legendary punk rock band Iggy Pop and the Stooges, as “our love letter to possibly the greatest band in rock ‘n’ roll history,” due in no small measure to its “preening leopard of a front man who somehow embodies Nijinsky, Bruce Lee, Harpo Marx, and Arthur Rimbaud.”
There are perhaps few who would argue with the case he and his film make, though the documentary is not quite as all-encompassing as it could have been. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
The doc starts out in 1973 where the band is “falling apart,” according to an onscreen narrative, and “sinking fast into oblivious gigs,” according to Pop himself. It quickly cuts to the beginning: 1965 Ann Arbor, Michigan, where grainy photos and film footage begin to weave the tapestry of a group of young music makers, from their high school sock-hop days to teen club parties to their ever-evolving band names and membership to their eventual treks to music cities such as Chicago, San Francisco and New York, which peppered their musicality with everything from rock and blues to jazz and punk.
Archival concert footage, photos, animation as well as interviews with brothers Scott and Ron Asheton, James Williamson, Steve MacKay, Ramones manager Danny Fields and Mike Watt, among scant few others, augment Pop’s vivid though casual recollections, as the decades fly and the Stooges find the world is not quite ready for their decadent style of punk-infused rock, not to mention Pop’s proclivity for literally jumping about the stage (“like a baboon” he proclaims) famously exposing his sinewy bare torso (borrowed, he explains, from Hollywood’s depiction of pharaohs on the big screen).
Pop (born James Newell Osterberg), who serves as the primary source throughout the course of the 108-minute film, gives us a steady narrative of behind-the-scenes concert and recording-session anecdotes. What’s missing, though, is any in-depth talk of the elephant in the green room: the sex and drugs and boozing that is alluded to but never truly exposed. The band no doubt partied hard on-stage and off, but it’s those off-stage moments, and no doubt the off-stage arguments that tore at the core of the band, which are mostly missing here. There is no mention of Pop’s run at a solo career, either, and much of the recent past (save for the Stooges’ Coachella “return” in 2003 and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in 2010) is glossed over.
But many other passages in the film enlighten, none so starkly as the realization that Pop and the Stooges were all but written off (thanks in no small measure to their own undoing) just as groups such as the Sex Pistols, Sonic Youth, Nirvana and the White Stripes came down the pike and demonstrated just how influential the band was to their respective careers.
“I think I helped wipe out the ’60s,” Pop (flanked by David Bowie) tells a smiling Dinah Shore on her ’70s daytime gabfest. Pop didn’t wipe out the’60s; he just lived them out in a parallel universe, the Stooges’ universe, where all hell broke loose on stage and off (and way off, as he soon began the practice of stage diving). He “shut down the band” because the two worlds eventually collided and nobody emerged victorious.
Those who know every shred of the band’s story will find the film a cool reminder of what the Stooges meant to rock ‘n’ roll. Those who know little of their music (vacuum cleaners and blenders were among their unique instruments) will find Pop an interesting and forthcoming individual who talks with sincere fondness about his earliest influences (“The Howdy Doody Show” and comedian Soupy Sales) and heartfelt pride about what he and the band accomplished in their ever-winding road through popular music.
“I don’t want to belong to the glam people,” Pop, now 68, says toward the film’s end. “I don’t want to belong to the hip-hop people. I don’t want to belong to the TV people. I don’t want to belong to the alternative people. I just want to be.”
Magnolia Films presents a documentary written and directed by Jim Jarmusch. Running time: 108 minutes. Rated R (for drug content and language). Opening Friday at Landmark Century Centre.