As I get older, I can’t help but notice that it’s becoming harder to really feel that guttural power of rock and roll. That involuntary reaction where you wanna break shit, that feeling rock and roll has been effectively channelling ever since Bill Haley caused a riot with something as anodyne as “Me Rock-a-Hula.” I don’t know if I’ve been around the bend so many times that I’ve gotten jaded, or if I’m too distracted with more hustle and bustle in my life to simply spend the time to let the music thump me in my chest the way I used to. Maybe I’m just looking in all the wrong places. It’s in these moments of old-dude insecurity that I try and go back to the headwaters of that primal heaviness for a kick start, and right on time here comes Gimme Danger, a documentary by Jim Jarmusch about Iggy Pop and the Stooges which should do just the trick.
I cannot imagine a more perfect director to helm this film than Jim Jarmusch. He’s utilized musicians as actors to outstanding effect in just about every one of his films. Screamin Jay Hawkins and Joe Strummer in Mystery Train. Tom Waits in Down By Law. Members of the Wu Tang Clan in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. Hell, he even got Iggy Pop to wear a bonnet in Dead Man, not that it’s a more outlandish outfit than the various get-ups he’s donned for live performances over the years, but still. That closeness to both Iggy personally and musicians in a more general sense results here in a final product that has significant value both as an historical document and a character study on Pop himself.
The director and his subject go way back already, so there’s that much less work to get to the nitty gritty of the story of the band, but Jarmusch adds these weird little stylistic flourishes to the film that set it apart from the rest of the talking-head style docs we tend to look at in this column. There’s the requisite archival footage and pics to accompany appropriate stories, but there are all these unnecessary bits, like an ancient clip of a woman in a bikini hitting a gong that marks chapter breaks in the film, and footage of a judge from some ‘60s era TV drama standing-in as a record label honcho. Beyond the simple pleasure of a well-told story, this was far and away the most fun I’ve had watching a music documentary in a long time.
The thing that stands out most prominently in the story of the Stooges is that they had roots in a wildly diverse set of influences since, for all intents and purposes, they had to invent themselves. All the punk bands that came after had the Stooges as a model, a point that the film hammers home with a montage of Stooges songs being covered by a half dozen punk mainstays. But the Stooges, and Iggy in particular, had Soupy Sales succinctness and Howdy Doody’s resident anarchist Clarabell the Clown to bite their style from. One of the great creation tales in music history is that the Ramones became a band not because they liked each other, but because they were the only guys in their school who loved the Stooges.
There’s a snippet of an interview where Iggy, missing a tooth from a botched stage dive attempt, explains something or other to the host by describing something as “...It’s Dionysiac, if you know the difference between Dionysian and Apollonian art...” before we’re whisked off to some other moment in Stooge history, but you get so much of Iggy right there. Yeah, he’s capable of these great beastial yawps, but damned if people take for granted how erudite he was. Iggy, upon hearing Scott and Ron Asheton for the first time, describes that epiphanic moment as such: “In the Ashetons, I found Primitive Man.” Who talks like that? The same dude who memorably smeared peanut butter all over himself at one show.
Iggy understandably gets the lion’s share of the glory here, but Ron and Scott Asheton get their due as well. Ron passed away in 2009, but Jarmusch uses older interviews and other bits to make him come alive for the film. Scott had sat for hours talking with Jarmusch both solo and with Iggy at his side before he died of a heart attack in 2014. Their deaths, as well as the deaths of former members of the group Dave Alexander, Bill Cheatham, and Zeke Zettner, are treated respectfully, but without a trace of saccharine sentimentality. This film is, in a way, a eulogy for the group, and it’s about as fitting a send off as anyone could have asked for.