There's something you should understand before seeing Jim Jarmusch's splendid new documentary. Reviews I've read indicate some confusion as to what exactly the subject of Gimme Danger is. This is a movie about the rise and fall and, sort of, rise again of the Stooges, the proto-punk Ann Arbor band of which Iggy Pop was both the brains and the front man. It's not a biographical portrait of Pop, and it doesn't address his solo career. So don't be surprised when you leave without having heard a note of "Lust for Life."
That is for a sequel. Here, Jarmusch's mission is to pay homage to a group he calls "the greatest rock-and-roll band ever," while assigning the Stooges their proper place in music history. It just happens that all but two members of the band have gone to that great mosh pit in the sky, so it falls to Iggy to serve as chief talking head. He recounts the group's history with an appealing mixture of insight, humility, resentment and wit. Nearly 70, he's never looked better or seemed more at peace with his place in the annals of rock.
Jarmusch employs a variety of devices to augment his narrative: stop-motion animation; clips from old movies (Pop was raised in a motor home like the one Lucille Ball has in 1953's The Long, Long Trailer); and, of course, footage from shorts starring the Three Stooges. These come in handy when Pop recalls the time guitarist Ron Asheton phoned Moe Howard requesting permission to use the name. "I don't give a fuck what you call yourselves," the funnyman snarled, "as long as it's not the Three Stooges." Click.
Not surprisingly, the most exciting footage is that of the Stooges performing. Between roughly 1967 and 1974, they more or less willed themselves into a functioning rock band composed of Pop; Asheton and his brother, drummer Scott Asheton; bassist Dave Alexander; and, starting in 1970, guitarist James Williamson. Pop describes their early days, when performing the simplest of covers was beyond them. We learn that Yul Brynner's pharaoh in The Ten Commandments provided the inspiration to perform shirtless. Perplexingly, though, Jarmusch omits any allusion to Jim Morrison, after whom Pop has admitted elsewhere to having modeled his own confrontational, obscenity-laced performance style.
Vomiting onstage, rolling around on broken glass and diving into the crowd were touches Pop came up with on his own, along with mesmerizing gyrations suggestive of James Brown being Tased to within an inch of his life. Pop describes his own dance style as resembling what "chimps or baboons do before they fight." Whatever it is, he recalls that its invention had an immediate effect on the band. It raised everybody's game and resulted in the creation of three records — The Stooges, Fun House and Raw Power, containing classics like "I Wanna Be Your Dog" and "Search and Destroy" — that were decades ahead of their time.
Jarmusch ingeniously begins Gimme Danger with the end of the Stooges, their "sputtering demise," as Pop puts it, in the mid-'70s when their label had forsaken the band and heroin had all but decimated its members. This paves the way for one of rock history's most unlikely tales of triumph. It's hardly a spoiler to note that the film documents a wildly successful reunion in 2003, the group's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2010 and the almost unparalleled influence the Stooges have had on generations of bands, from the Sex Pistols and the Ramones to Sonic Youth and Nirvana. It took a while, but the world eventually caught up with the Stooges. What a difference 40 years can make.