Director/writer Jim Jarmusch doesn't pull any punches in his Stooges documentary, Gimme Danger, calling the Ann Arbor group "the greatest rock and roll band ever" in the first two minutes. He spends the next 100 or so demonstrating why in a mostly chronological manner, with animated sequences and interpolations of relevant pop-culture effluvia thrown in to avoid talking-head overdose, the plague of most music docs. At this point, we don't need an endless stream of very important musicians and critics to testify to the Stooges' magnificence. However, we do need to know how these dudes from inauspicious circumstances seeded the soil for punk rock and other heavy musical developments. Gimme Danger dramatizes that story efficiently and vividly.
Jarmusch opts for a frills-free approach that matches that of his subject's music. He keeps the focus mainly on Iggy Pop (aka James Osterberg), who's more lucid than you'd imagine for someone with his history of self-destructiveness. This is as it should be. Ig's hangdog face and deep, laconic voice are as riveting as his clever descriptive powers and no-nonsense attitude. (How he outlived fellow innovators/comrades Lou Reed and David Bowie is miraculous.) Interviews with Ron and Scott Asheton, James Williamson, Steve Mackay, Elektra A&R man Danny Fields, and the Ashetons' sister Kathy round out the picture.
Before diving into Iggy's unusual upbringing in an Ypsilanti, Michigan, trailer, Jarmusch opens with a tableau of the Stooges hitting rock bottom after their first two radical LPs—The Stooges and Fun House—failed to earn commercial success. In retrospect, it seems insane that the Stooges didn't immediately set the world on fire, but heads weren't ready. Of course, their music had a delayed cataclysmic effect, and now they're as canonical as the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, and the Velvet Underground.
Gimme Danger does the important work of examining Iggy's youth. His parents indulged his drum aspirations, eventually ceding the master bedroom to their hyper son. We learn of a formative trip to the River Rouge auto plant, where Iggy heard the "mega clang" of a metallic stamper, which inspired him to try to capture that heavy sound in music. We discover Ig's lyrical concision derived from watching TV personality Soupy Sales.
Young Jim's dedication paid off as he led the garage-rock group the Iguanas in high school and later in 1966 pounded the skins for blues band the Prime Movers. But Ig soon got an urge to experience some of that real blues shit he'd only heard on record, so he jetted to Chicago to soak up hedonistic vibes and play drums for bluesmen like Big Walter Horton and Johnny Young.
That was fun while it lasted, but Iggy realized he wasn't a black blues musician and moved back to Michigan, where he formed the Psychedelic Stooges with Ron and Scott Asheton and bassist Dave Alexander. "In the Ashetons, I found primitive mayhem," Iggy notes. Their zeal for free-jazz fieriness and dadaistic experimentation (early shows included vacuum cleaner accompaniment) set them apart from most of their contemporaries. Further distinguishing them was Iggy's frontman antics: He treated the entire world as his drum and his body as a mallet.
The Psychedelic Stooges eventually became the Stooges, and they naturally gravitated toward the more together Detroit heavy-rock behemoths the MC5. In one of the greatest coups in music-industry history, Fields signed both groups in 1968. Interestingly, the MC5 asked the Stooges to go to Chicago and perform at the Democratic National Convention, but Iggy declined. It just wasn't in the Stooges' nature to delve into politics, even if it could've been a savvy career move.
Rather, Iggy and company were revolutionaries of the id, harnessers of the sort of sonic potency and iconoclasm that reek of nihilism and intense libidinal friction. Their Nietzschean will to power manifested in Iggy's outrageously provocative stage demeanor and the kind of musical energy and primal thrust that spur other people to start revolutions—both sonic and personal. Jarmusch nods to that influence light-handedly.
The biggest disappointment of Gimme Danger is the lack of discussion of "Dirt," the nonchalantly funky slow-burner off 1970's Fun House. The seven-minute song deserves an exhaustive exegesis, as it is the ultimate stoned-fucking soundtrack—and a fertile sample source for hiphop producers. "Dirt" is the true deviation on Fun House, the anomalous connective tissue between the pneumatic thuggishness of side one and the blasted jazz-rock chaos of side two.
But that letdown is ameliorated by the illumination of the divisive "We Will Fall," the epic doom-drone chiller from the 1969 debut LP that basically invented New York band Swans. I consider it to be one of their best creations and agree with Scott Asheton, who said it "proved we weren't like the other bands." Contrary to popular belief, 10-minute dirges with Hindu chanting weren't plentiful in 1969.
Jarmusch wisely ignores the Stooges' last two mediocre records, 2007's The Weirdness and 2013's Ready to Die, while the Mike Watt years get a crisp, respectful overview. Near the end, we see Iggy—as vascular, ripped, and limber as ever—cavorting at 2003's Coachella festival and giving a wry acceptance speech at their 2010 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. The singer who once regularly left the stage bloodied comports himself with dignity and offers hard-won wisdom throughout Gimme Danger, a powerful, if not totally raw, portrait of rock and roll's purest Dionysian spirit.