In the early eighties Jim Jarmusch was part of a wave of filmmakers inspired by punk rock. With its minimalist non-plot and stark, noir-ish texture, his first feature film, "Stranger Than Paradise," was emblematic of the same DIY qualities as the corresponding indie music movement.
His first foray into rock filmmaking, "Year of the Horse," which followed Neil Young and Crazy Horse on their 1996 tour, might have seemed a bit incongruous for a street-punk like Jarmusch with its prairie-wide embrace of Young’s — and particularly Horseman Poncho Sampredo’s — unadorned qualities, but it corresponded with a certain reckoning amongst the underground at that time with rustic tradition (think Wilco, etc.)
With "Gimme Danger," his new documentary about Detroit super-rock legends Iggy and the Stooges, Jarmusch has finally come home to the urban dirt which first inspired him. The ultimate outsider band — whom Jarmusch brazenly proclaims “the greatest rock n’ roll band” of all-time in the film’s opening scene, where the only surviving member of the original band, Iggy Pop himself, holds court on a throne surrounded by skulls — the Stooges crashed and burned in grandiloquent fashion, a post-modern comic-tragedy befitting their name as well as the times they flamed out in.
Detroit in the mid-sixties, as well as being Soul City, was the industrial center of the midwest, a grinding juggernaut of white-hot energy, and the bands who emerged from this seething bastion were noticeably more aggressive than their Californian peers, who were gaining all the attention with their love, peace and acid philosophy. Like the Velvet Underground in New York, bands like the Stooges and MC5, although no less drug-oriented, were a dose of ugly realism in the midst of this Utopian vision.
But since it was the Sixties, and the hallucinatory vibes were inescapable, they were originally called the Psychedelic Stooges, which also referred to their penchant for exotic instrumentation — amplified eggbeaters, oil drums, just complete mayhem — which eventually took a backseat as they evolved, dropped the “Psychedelic” tag and eventually signed with Elektra on the coattails of the at-that-time more famous MC5. But even then, they stood apart from their radical white-panther peers. One of the most telling vignettes in the film is when Iggy explains how MC5 manager John Sinclair urged the Stooges to follow that band to Chicago, to play at the ill-fated Democratic convention, and the Stooges declined, despite the publicity it could have garnered them because, as Iggy explains: “We weren’t political at all.”
They also weren’t savvy about endearing themselves to record companies, or even fans. The first album — which Pop describes as “a good, sharp little poke” — was so stupidly simplistic — but so effectively raw and alive — that it established a whole new way of thinking about rock music — i.e., Punk. Another choice segment is when Iggy describes buying his first dog collar — this is in 1970 — when the band was in L.A. recording their even more primal second album, Funhouse, and the reaction from poet Ed Sanders, who was staying next door covering the Manson trial, and who, being from New York and sensing the S&M implications, was suitably aghast.
But this was the nihilistic nature of the band, and that nihilism was, during the seventies, absorbed by Alice Cooper, David Bowie, the New York Dolls, Patti Smith, the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, the Dead Boys, and later, Black Flag, Bad Brains, GG Allin and millions of others, even as the Stooges failed to profit from it, due to the fact that, as Danny Fields, the man who signed them to Elektra, says: “They were victims of their own unprofessionalism.”
The thing you really garner from the film, the same as you do watching similar cinematic opuses about the MC5, Velvet Underground or Doors (to name but three comparable acts who’ve gotten the documentary treatment) is that they were on a mission. It was the naive nature of the era that allowed them to get that unselfconscious — and it’s why their music still resonates today. It’s all about authenticity and nobody would ever doubt the Stooges’ conviction. Jarmusch, a filmmaker schooled (or un-schooled) on the same primitivist notions, enhances the narrative with his sometimes-hilarious montage concepts—like brilliantly interspersing footage of the actual Three Stooges with their namesakes—but basically stays out of the picture. The Beavis and Butthead-like animation of James Kerr brilliantly expresses the band’s eternal idiot-savant purity.
Gimme Danger: A Film by Jim Jarmusch | Screening at SPACE Gallery, 538 Congress St., Portland | 7:30pm on Tuesday, Nov. 22 | http://space538.org/events/gimme-danger
Joe S. Harrington is the author of "Sonic Cool: The Life & Death of Rock N’ Roll.”