In his introductory narration, director Jim Jarmusch describes The Stooges—the subject of his new documentary Gimme Danger—as “the greatest rock and roll band ever.” To his credit, at least he’s not being sly about his intention to turn a glowing eye and not a critical one on the band’s short career and later reunion. Still, hagiography is generally a boring recipe for these kinds of film; even to fans, such works offer little insight and usually less enjoyment than could be derived from, say, just listening to the albums themselves. Jarmusch, though, manages to find the connective thread of humanity in the band’s story even if he does so in a formally uninspired way.
Detroit’s The Stooges managed three killer albums—1969’s The Stooges, 1970’s Fun House and 1973’s Raw Power—before flaming out in a mess of indulgence and addiction in 1974. Still, that small but powerful body of work was able to propel frontman Iggy Pop (or, as the credits clarify, “Jim Osterberg as Iggy Pop”) to a successful solo career, catch the eye of fellow artists like David Bowie and influence decades of music to come, including being one of the main inspirations for punk rock. A 2003 reunion and a 2010 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame provide a heartwarming finish for Jarmusch’s story.
For the most part, Jarmusch’s approach will be familiar to any regular viewer of rock docs or VH1 specials but he does vary in the early going by essentially starting in media res. The prologue of Gimme Danger details the band’s low point, with Iggy’s substance abuse making him and, by extension, the band unreliable at best. Before the opening titles begin, they’ve broken up. After that, though, Jarmusch jumps back to the beginning and tells the whole tale more or less chronologically, only deviating from audience expectations in his commendable insistence that this is a film strictly about The Stooges, almost completely ignoring Iggy’s notable 30 years in the interim. With his own catalog of terrific albums, his years living in Berlin with Bowie and his idiosyncratic career as an actor, that chunk of time will probably make for a decent documentary of its own someday.
Fans of Jarmusch may be disappointed to find Gimme Danger so lacking when it comes to the auteur’s personality. It’s not the standard chronology that irks—Jarmusch has never been a particularly nonlinear filmmaker—but the clever-to-the-point-of-cutesy touches he ladles on that make the film needlessly busy and, most shamefully, strikingly similar to almost every other documentary in the post-Moore/Spurlock age. Cheeky bits of animation pop up alongside the hodgepodge of abstract visual and cultural connections that are de rigueur for pop documentaries in the 21st century. At this point, is there anything new that can be said by using stock footage of a mushroom cloud?
These touches are not only familiar and worn out, they’re essentially useless. The most dynamic footage is of the band’s members and friends telling the roughshod, colorful stories that make up their shared history. Who needs flashy inserts when you’ve got a man like Iggy, who tells stories that begin, “I went to Detroit with a tab of mescaline and a shovel…”? Jarmusch does achieve one ingenious use of footage, though, when he details the years between iterations with performances of countless bands, from the Sex Pistols to Sonic Youth, playing Stooges songs in concert. He crystallizes the band’s influence without even having to argue the point.
It’s a letdown that a singular director like Jarmusch has produced such a conventional film. In its totality, though, it’s still better than most movies of its kind because he never forgets to foreground the unique individuality of his subjects, just as they never forgot what motivated them, in the first place, to become, at the very least, one of the greatest rock and roll bands ever.