When you watch the great rock & rollers (Mick Jagger, Jim Morrison, Johnny Rotten, Prince, Elvis), it’s easy to feel that each one of them has a wild animal inside, a jubilant — or angry — erotic exhibitionist demon. Starting in the late ’60s, Iggy Pop was that animal. He was the rock & roll id fully exposed for the first time — not just wild but naked, an imp of fury, truly and defiantly out of control, leaping and stage-diving and crawling and prostrating himself, a rock god who looked like he’d slithered out of the gutter and was now going to sacrifice himself on the altar of anarchy. His uniform, as it were, smashed every barrier of decency and taste: Bare-chested, with a body that was all sinew and abs and bone (he liked to hold it in the shape of an S), wearing nothing but a dog collar and leather pants, he sang songs like “I Wanna Be Your Dog” and “No Fun” as if he were a Dionysus gone psychotic, and his mesmerizing dancing turned him into a cross between Jagger, Marilyn Chambers in mid-porno writhe, and a flea on a hot stove.
“Gimme Danger,” Jim Jarmusch’s documentary about Iggy and the Stooges, is a movie that pays scrupulous and affectionate tribute to a band that, at the time, looked like a sideshow of sociopathic freaks. Now they seem like nothing less than the defining progenitors of the CBGB era. The film is carefully assembled, full of great 16mm period footage and steeped in a grasp of rock history, yet it’s far from a knockout; it lacks the layered grandeur of a punk doc like “The Filth and the Fury.” Jarmusch, who in a voiceover hails the Stooges as “the greatest rock & roll band ever” (you can seriously love the Stooges and still step right up to dispute that), is such a lifelong fan that his worship of these infamous semi-underground icons is a little unchecked. He doesn’t look at them from enough angles. Yet “Gimme Danger” is a compelling and detailed diary of everything that made the Stooges what they were. The best reason to see the film is simply the chance it offers to wallow in the grungy glory of Iggy Pop as the hellbent showman — the animal loosed from his cage — he was.
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The credits, which come at us in the dripping-blood font of a ’60s horror film, present the star by billing him as “James Osterberg as Iggy Pop.” That is, in fact, Iggy’s real name, but this is really Jarmusch’s way of acknowledging that the Stooges were theater, maybe more than they knew. The film kicks off with a prelude set in 1973, the year the Stooges flamed out and fell apart. We hear tales of slipshod gigs or ones they didn’t even show up for, of Iggy arriving on stage but not bothering to sing, of tanking record sales and live audiences fading away. For any other group, this would add up to a disaster, but Jarmusch offers up the band’s final failure as an ironic signifier of its greater cosmic victory, very much like the implosion of the Sex Pistols. He’s saying: This is what happens when a band lives fast and dies young, when its whole mode of performance is to create excitement out of destruction. That the breakup — or, more accurately, the breakdown — of the Stooges represented a staggering commercial failure is all part of the mystique. They were selling anarchy before it sold.
Iggy grew up in a trailer home on the outskirts of Ann Arbor, Mich. (full disclosure: It’s my hometown too), and the movie does a terrific job of sketching in the world he came out of. In that trailer, he was (literally) close to his parents, and he grew up on Howdy Doody and Soupy Sales, the latter of which he cites as a major influence on his philosophy of songwriting. Soupy would tell the kids at home to keep their letters short (no more than 25 words), and Iggy, later on, would knowingly apply that rule to the lyrics of tracks like “No Fun” (“No fun, my babe, no fun”). Ann Arbor itself had a major impact on the Stooges, as it did on the MC5, the Detroit band who, for a while, became the Stooges’ older brothers in anarchy. It was a college town that combined the fading cult embers of the hippie ’60s, a druggie biker underground, and a reverence for the avant-garde. Iggy started as a drummer and worked at Discount Records, where he grooved on such wizards of dissonance as Harry Partch, John Cage, Carl Orff, and John Coltrane. He also journeyed to Chicago to sit in with bluesmen, though he recalls that during that trip, “I smoked a joint by the river and realized I was not black.”
That’s exactly the kind of line that makes Iggy, interviewed throughout “Gimme Danger,” such a wittily acerbic yet clear-eyed observer of his own follies. His deep, dry voice has a get-this beatnik bounce to it, because he’s always driving home a perception — in this case, that he was going to be a rock & roller (maybe the first) who cut his music loose from its R&B roots. Sure, the MC5 got there a little beforehand, but their kick-out-the-jams demolition rock was ragged. The Stooges, on their debut album, which was far more influenced by the cathartic drone of the Velvet Underground, infused the musical vandalism of the MC5 with focus and tightness and drive. Both bands were signed, in September 1968, by Danny Fields, who heard them in the Student Union of the University of Michigan, knew that he was witnessing a pop-cultural earthquake, and convinced the suits at Elektra Records to back the new sound.
In addition to Iggy, Jarmusch devotes a lot of screen time to other talking heads from the band’s rotating membership: the drummer Scott Asheton, his brother Ron, who was the guitarist, and James Williamson, the lead guitarist who joined the band in 1970. In essence, they were all backup musicians — the straight men to Iggy’s prancing wastrel-clown. And the truth is that they’re a bit boringly straight in the interviews. They sketch in the band’s essential story, with lively anecdotes about how, say, the song “Not Right,” off the band’s first album, was written overnight and played for the first time in the studio, on the very cut that made the record. The journey is illustrated with vintage photos and clips that Jarmusch and his editors, Adam Kurnitz and Affonso Goncalves, put together with loving skill, but the movie is so focused on the music that it sidesteps what might have been some dramatic — and intensely relevant — detours.
Considering what an Olympic champion druggie Iggy Pop has always owned up to being, “Gimme Danger” needed more stories of his dissolution, and how it fueled (as well as fought) his art. By the end, you may also feel that this is the first band in history that never had a fight. Where’s the tension, the clash of ego, that must surely have surfaced at one point or another? Jarmusch seems a bit prudish about what he may regard as the “gossip” angle of Iggy and the Stooges’ story. But that’s just the kind of thing that gives a rock doc its juice. Jarmusch would also have done well to interview a wider swath of people: rock & rollers who were influenced by Iggy, people who were shocked by him, maybe even — God forbid — a critic or two who could put into words what made the Stooges’ music great.
“Gimme Danger” has an ironic tone for a Stooges portrait: dutiful and engrossing, but not electric or crazy. Iggy talks about how he put together his famous look. The notion of going shirtless on stage was inspired by Hollywood’s B-movie Egyptian pharaohs, and the dog collar was something he bought on a whim at an L.A. pet store. At the end of the film, he tells a story about how when he was a teenager, some sneering frat-boy types started rocking his family trailer back and forth. Says Iggy with a smile, “Ever since, I’ve been out to get ‘em!” By which he means: It was that resentment, at the whole jerky conventional world, that ignited his concert antics. But that’s the one and only moment in “Gimme Danger” when we actually hear about what it felt like to be Iggy Pop onstage. It’s the only moment that lets you glimpse his danger.