Still a bare-chested force of nature at 69 years old, Iggy Pop has never settled for mediocrity as an elder statesman of rock and roll. But in Jim Jarmusch’s nonchalant portrayal of the Stooges’ chaotic heyday, their visceral energy and cataclysmic musical impact barely registers, writes Elena Lazic.
Gimme Danger opens on a sour note. Joining the Stooges in 1973 on tour for their third album Raw Power – a commercial flop and the final transmission from the band’s original incarnation – we watch Iggy Pop succumbing to heroin addiction and increasingly erratic behaviour. Raw black-and-white footage of the few shows they managed to book at the time captures the bare-chested frontman jumping around the stage as the crowd pelt the band with bottles; it’s a nightmarish spectacle, the vision of the rock and roll story gone wrong.
It’s a familiar narrative, played out most recently in Brett Morgen’s exhaustive and exhausting Nirvana documentary Cobain: Montage of Heck and in Asif Kapadia’s portrayal of Amy Winehouse’s downward spiral in Amy. But the dominating presence of a very much alive Iggy Pop is reassurance that this chronicle of excess, directed by his old friend and collaborator Jim Jarmusch, will be light-hearted rather than bleak. In fact, Gimme Danger goes out of its way to avoid framing the Stooges’ journey as a rise and a decline, instead focusing attention on the Michigan rock heroes’ glory days. Through his typically nonchalant, non-dramatic attitude to storytelling – seen most recently in his Adam Driver-starring film Paterson – Jarmusch recognises that the unruliness which led to the band’s decline was also their genius; their existence was as intense as it was short-lived, and it wasn’t going to happen any other way.
In a year that has seen the departure of so many musical icons, it’s a relief to note that Iggy looks more lively as a talking head than in the original concert footage. But as the story unfolds, Jarmusch’s reverent approach to his subjects and relaxed sense of drama ends up underselling a band once considered not just groundbreaking but dangerous, reducing the Stooges’ eternally youthful, anti-establishment music to the status of dad-rock. The anger and boredom Iggy captures in his lyrics – “another year with nothing to do,” he snarls on ‘1969’ – loses its edge. That the director avoids digging too deeply may have something to do with the closeness between artist and filmmaker; Iggy and Jarmusch have collaborated previously, with Iggy starring as a cross-dressing fur trader in the 1995 western Dead Man and appearing as himself in 2003’s Coffee and Cigarettes.
“Jarmusch’s unserious tone communicates all of the band’s levity but none of its importance”
The difficult reconciliation of a subject’s adult life with their reckless past as a rock star is the theme of Martin Scorsese’s documentary George Harrison: Living in the Material World, which focuses on the Beatle’s lifelong interest in transcendental meditation. Harrison looks back on his life with startling wisdom and tenderness, and his introspection finds its perfect match in Scorsese’s detailed and perceptive direction. Perhaps Jarmusch’s laid-back approach would have been a better fit with a documentary about Iggy as he is today; applied to a retelling of the band’s history, his directorial style distances us from the raw power of the music.
In one interview segment, Iggy makes it clear that music was always the band’s main focus, not fame, money or women – but apart from a few telling moments (Iggy telling us about discovering the riff for ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’, for instance), Gimme Danger makes little effort to explain why these songs are so unique and important. Only over the opening credits do we hear a song played in full. The Stooges’ innovations deserve a more committed analysis – the kind of attention to detail, for instance, that Spike Lee brought to his two documentaries about Michael Jackson, Bad 25 and Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall, which jettison biographical detail to attempt a thorough dissection of two seminal albums. Jarmusch takes more interest in Iggy’s life than his music.
It all boils down to a common pitfall in documentary filmmaking: telling the story of the subject from their perspective alone. The artists themselves, being at the eye of the storm, can only offer a limited perspective on the scale of their cultural impact. Scorsese made the decision to have Bob Dylan barely present in 2005’s No Direction Home, a music documentary that takes an anthropological approach to its subject, establishing the context in which Dylan would come to achieve success through archive footage of 1960s Greenwich Village and interviews with surviving folk singers from the era. Instead of a rose-tinted vision of a faraway period, it’s a clear-eyed reflection on a time of political restlessness and poverty for the artists featured.
Scorsese dismantles Dylan’s self-made mythology to portray a complex individual whose contradictory characteristics are sometimes difficult to reconcile into one being. In contrast, Jarmusch’s unserious tone, embellished in the film by animations and sound effects, communicates all of the band’s levity but none of its importance, ultimately making them sound less interesting than they truly were. Despite its enticingly provocative title, Gimme Danger plays it safe. Listening to their three seminal albums, The Stooges, Fun House and Raw Power, still provides a better sense of why they matter – and takes up less time than Jarmusch’s film.
Elena Lazic is on Twitter