[This is a re-post of our Gimme Danger review; the film opens in limited release on Friday]
Jim Jarmusch had to direct Gimme Danger. No other American filmmaker currently working has the right to make a movie about Iggy Pop and The Stooges. That sounds, and is, a preposterous point of view to have, but those who are familiar with Jarmusch and his peccadillos will no doubt understand the sentiment here. The director has made a point of finding different ways to work his rock-centric musical obsessions into his narratives. His last movie, 2014’s superb Only Lovers Left Alive, was about duo of vampires who spend nights driving around Detroit and sightsee by cruising by Jack White’s childhood home. The male vampire, played by Tom Hiddleston, fronts a mythic noise-rock outfit that never plays live shows, spends his money on rare guitars that he plays alone, and excites his lover with an original vinyl single of Charlie Feathers’ “I Can’t Hardly Stand It.”
Jarmusch’s most recent soundtracks often feature gigantic suites of guitar squall from such noted drone, sludge or atmospheric metal, and noise rock practitioners as Boris, Sunn O))), and White Hills. At the heart of these bands is a love for auditory dissonance, a passion that Iggy Pop and The Stooges by no means originated but did imbue with their own particular style and physical energy that had a reverberating influence on the East and West Coast punk scenes. Add on the fact that The Stooges remain something like royalty in their hometown of Detroit and you’d have to have a small battalion to keep Jarmusch away from telling their story.
The filmmaker fittingly opens the movie with destruction. Following the recording and release of The Stooges third record, the incendiary Raw Power, the band quickly spiraled downward into oblivion fueled by drugs and resentment for one another. If you knew nothing about The Stooges, the moment would ring with failure, disappointment, and familiarity, the rote ending to every rock & roll band story you’ve ever heard. And that is, in fact, what Elektra Records and so many other music-business insiders and record companies thought about the notorious band. Jarmusch’s film goes about reestablishing the timeless allure of Pop, the three brilliant musicians that backed him up, and the furious music they made together.
The music came suddenly. Pop, also known as James Osterberg Jr., had learned drums and had gigged around in a few bands before he buddied up with Ron and Scott Asheton and Dave Alexander to form the Psychedelic Stooges, soon to be renamed The Stooges. Shepherded by the MC5, the band wrote tunes with no more than 25 words in them and fed off Pop’s thrilling stage antics more than any sense of storytelling through song. Their best songs were indebted to repetition, taking a couplet like “down on the street/where the faces shine” and scratching out or stretching the words to create new phrases screamed or grunted into Pop’s microphone. Jarmusch directs the film with a similar disinterest in just telling the story of The Stooges in any way that’s not his own and the project brings out a sense of no-frills energy out of Jarmusch.
Exposition and words from songs or people often appear on the screen in a cheesy, handwriting-type style, as if just scribbled there quickly for those few who may be interested. He doesn’t beg your attention by going to black or framing the quotations with graphics or anything like that. The way its presented in Jarmusch’s film it feels like something the filmmaker just thinks you might want to know. He anchors much of the film to an interview with Pop in the laundry room of his house – from the looks of it, at least – and this too is done with a noticeable level of aesthetic ambivalence. There are moments where Pop looks as if he has a humongous light bulb pointed right at his face, which he does, but usually, you’re not supposed to notice so plainly.
There’s a great deal of charm to all of this but there are moments where the ramshackle nature of Gimme Danger feels more like laziness than stylistic decisiveness. Though the director often alludes to a personal connection through his images, and makes a quick cameo at the very beginning while setting up the camera for Pop’s interview, he never makes that connection manifest in the movie itself. Pop, the Ashetons, and Williams grew as artists between their self-titled debut and the feedback hellfire that is Fun House and Raw Power, and Pop speaks about these experiments and sudden bursts of invention with genuine gusto and intimacy. And though the editing is fleet-footed and the subject matter is intensely involving, there’s no reflection from Jarmusch to show how his style has changed over the years, which it very clearly has.
Rather than a work centered on fandom or worship, Gimme Danger ends up being primarily about kinship. Jarmusch likens himself to Pop and goes about linking their sensibilities in his imagery and in the way he has lovingly assembled Gimme Danger. In other words, what’s missing from the movie is the movie’s author himself, whether in the form of being interviewed about his history with the music and with Pop, who has starred in at least two of his movies or giving a more pronounced sense of himself on the screen. Pop, Asheton, James Williamson, and other talking heads guide us from the early days of the band to the recording of their records in New York and Los Angeles to Alexander’s death and the reunion tour. Clips from children’s programs, TV series, and movies, as well as concert footage, make up a large portion of the runtime as well, but they are often used to literally, utilized to show evidence of a recollected moment or an expressive example of an outrageous occurrence.
Of course, this is first and foremost a movie about Iggy Pop and The Stooges, and under that rubric, Gimme Danger cannot be considered anything less than a heartfelt, viscerally entertaining, and entirely successful feat. But there’s no way of looking fully beyond the fact that this is Jim Jarmusch’s movie about the band and that he’s one of the few people on this Earth equipped to capably convey the blazing imagination and unrelenting attitude that The Stooges stood for, and still do to this day. One can’t help but wish that there were more of a potent, tangible sense of why he thought he was the right man to direct this movie, even if those reasons seem perfectly clear to most Jarmusch devotees.