There are two things I love in this world – the films of Jim Jarmusch and the music of Iggy Pop. Also, the universe can be extraordinarily kind every now and then, and in this case, we were blessed with a combination of the greatest independent filmmaker of all time making a documentary about the greatest punk band in history. That was The Stooges, and as chronicled in Jarmusch’s ingenious and brilliantly constructed documentary, Gimme Danger, they would go on to influence countless other bands and musicians.
There are several approaches to looking at Gimme Danger – and I will go through each and every one of them. The first is as a chronicle of a band. This kind of documentary isn’t uncommon – the tracking of the rise and fall of an entertainment figure, from origin to success, and if the need is there, their failures and downfall. Gimme Danger does play into this familiar kind of documentary, and telling the story of The Stooges, from beginning to end. In that way, it seems pretty conventional – but Jarmusch is obviously far from a conventional director. Even in this kind of music documentary, which has a well-worn template already carved out, he manages to be unique and original, and even within the confines of a music documentary, he finds new ways to be different. One way is his remarkable restraint in terms of the narrative – Iggy Pop became a big star in his own right after The Stooges dissolved in the early 1970s – and many know him for his songs such as “The Passenger” (the greatest song ever written, and I will gladly debate anyone who disagrees), and “Lust for Life” – and his career would be a worthy film on its own – yet Jarmusch doesn’t go near this aspect of Iggy Pop’s career at all – this is a film about The Stooges, not the front-man.
To go on a tangent and explore the career of Iggy Pop rather than focusing on the band as a whole would’ve been wrong. Honestly, while I adore his career as a solo artist, I watched this film as a fan of The Stooges, not just of their lead singer. To make a documentary about Iggy Pop and his band and not mention his biggest successes was a risky move, and I expect many people who watched Gimme Danger did so with the intention of it being solely about Iggy Pop, and I’m sure they came out of it disappointed. But if there is a filmmaker that can pull it off, it is Jim Jarmusch, who I would trust to direct nearly anything, because if he hasn’t proved his mettle as a filmmaker by this point, he might never (but he certainly has, and while he may not be as adored as Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese, he is just as brilliant, and maybe even more so – but let us avoid getting into that).
Another way that Jarmusch revolutionizes the documentary format in his own small way feeds into the second way we can look at this film – as a film about showbusiness as a whole. Gimme Danger covers the period from the late 1960s to the early 1970s – the era where counter-culture wasn’t new, but at its peak, and where the Civil Rights Movement was finally reaching its climax that would help make progressive issues more accepted. The period that this film covers was a strange time – the 1960s was a strange era, because it brought about a great amount of change, in society, politics and the world as a whole – and most people just couldn’t wait for it to be over. As Iggy Pop himself says near the end of Gimme Danger, when asked what he helped contribute to the world, “I think I helped wipe out the Sixties” – and he certainly did, because in terms of music and entertainment as a whole, we could see a huge shift from the counter-culture predominance of the entertainment of the Sixties to the more radical and unique Seventies. At the forefront of this is was punk music, and not only telling the story of The Stooges, Jarmusch also chronicles the music scene, and the transition from the 1960s to the 1970s in a very unique way.
To understand what I mean, we have to just go back a few years. The Stooges were formed officially in 1968, but backtracking just a few years, we find another band arising in the 1960s that were arguably the most influential band of all time, and would go on to inspire all musicians that came afterwards in some way, and their mark still remains to this very day, through their incredible legacy. Of course, I’m not referring to The Beatles or The Rolling Stones, but rather to The Velvet Underground, the band that would go on to influence generations of musicians across genres. One such band that were immediately influenced by The Velvet Underground was The Stooges – and there was clearly some relationship between the two bands – yet Jarmusch doesn’t explore The Velvet Underground as many do perceive them – instead of being portrayed as the high priests of progressive music, and the great precursors to punk music, they are presented as somewhat old-hat – more time is spent on discussing Nico’s friendship with The Stooges and her disdain for her ex-boyfriend Lou Reed, than is actually spent exploring the influence the band had on The Stooges.
Not only does Jarmusch avoid overly exploring the effect The Velvet Underground had on the band – and despite existing at the same time, and even performing in the same venue (the legendary CBGB, which is not mentioned at all in the film). Now believe me, there is a point here – by not focusing on who influenced The Stooges, or who The Stooges saw as their peers in music, Jarmusch manages to solidify Iggy Pop’s desire that he doesn’t want to be a part of any group or genre – he just wants to be himself, and The Stooges, while they did co-exist with many other highly influential bands, were without contemporaries in their brand of music, and Jarmusch displays this at every opportunity by isolating The Stooges as their own genre, and once again, its a risky choice but one that Gimme Danger pulls off flawlessly. There is a wonderful moment where David Bowie (a figure that can only be called deity-like in terms of music) is clearly shown to have been a big influence on The Stooges, but rather than explaining how important he was to the success of the band, he is shown performing one of their songs near the end – a small, but utterly magnificent, detail that proves that Jim Jarmusch is the very definition of audacious.
Another way Jarmusch made this a revolutionary film was the way that he so liberally took scenes from various films and television shows and used them as narrative devices to exemplify the themes of the film. A wide range of genres are shown throughout the film through the movie clips shown, and while it may be jarring for some, when you you actually realize the true brilliance behind it, that nothing is original and inspiration doesn’t come from the most obvious places, and that what influences us as artists isn’t always the most clear thing, you realize that Jarmusch was a genius in what he did here. It just reminds me of Jarmusch’s incredible words of wisdom for young filmmakers and artists:
Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery – celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.”
That last line absolutely haunts me – “it’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to” – and the greatest pleasure I gained from Gimme Danger were the various anecdotes about where Iggy Pop and his band-mates got their inspiration, whether it be from children’s television shows (Iggy’s terrifying of the Howdy Doody Peanut Gallery will stay with me forever, always appearing on the darkest and most desolate nights), high school bullies or simply walking past a pet store, which brought about the most iconic moment in the history of The Stooges. This could’ve been a standard, bland documentary, but rather it incorporated various forms of media and historical pieces of entertainment to help complement the themes of the film and very often contrast these themes with the band and their decisions (who knew that Iggy’s penchant for not wearing a shirt while performing came from an adoration of Ancient Egyptian pharaohs?).
I need to retract a previous statement only slightly – while I do agree that Jarmusch makes sure to make this a film about The Stooges, he does lean quite heavily on Iggy Pop himself. But who can be blamed for that? First of all, sadly Iggy is one of only two surviving members of The Stooges, and secondly, he is such a uniquely magnetic presence. It is strange to see that the same performer known for his audacious and sometimes terrifyingly strange stage antics is actually a pretty down-to-earth, well-spoken and fiercely intelligent man. He may not be the sole focus of this film, but he is certainly given a portrait that only further boosts his profile as a musical icon. I could honestly listen to him tell stories all day. Of course, I expect quite a bit of this film came about because of Jarmusch’s friendship with Iggy (they made two films together, where Jarmusch managed to show that Iggy Pop is actually quite a unique actor as well), so on one hand, it is incredible to see a filmmaker passionate about music making an excellent documentary on a highly influential band, but even better when you know it is a collaboration between two longtime friends.
Gimme Danger is not for everyone – it is certainly aimed at those who have a passion for punk music, and its a love letter to punk in a major way. It may alienate those who aren’t familiar with Iggy Pop, and those who find his antics silly and bizarre will outright hate this film, as it is composed almost entirely around Iggy’s antics (but then again, if you find Iggy Pop’s antics stupid, why would you want to watch a documentary about him?). However, for those who are converted into the Church of the Stooges, you will absolutely adore this film. Frequently funny, unique and brilliantly made, Jim Jarmusch goes out of his way to craft an excellent film. Gimme Danger proved three things to me: the world needs the films of Jim Jarmusch, the music of Iggy Pop and the brilliance of both of them put together. Gimme Danger exists for this purpose, and I adored it.
P.S. a great companion to this is the concert film of Iggy Pop’s recent performance at the Royal Albert Hall. There is just something celestially satisfying about Iggy Pop performing at the most high-brow and classy venue in the world.