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There’s a nice throwaway moment in Paterson, Jim Jarmusch’s supple exploration of the poetry at the heart of blue-collar New Jersey, in which a local bar owner consults the regular customer played by Adam Driver over whether a 1970 newspaper clipping belongs on the establishment’s wall of fame. The item reports the Paterson Teenage Girls’ Club voting Iggy Pop, vocalist of The Stooges, the world’s sexiest man. It’s a given that the clipping will make the wall, just as it’s no surprise when, right at the start of Jarmusch’s tremendously entertaining rock doc, Gimme Danger, The Stooges are declared to be the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band ever.
The tight friendship between Jarmusch and Pop (listed in the main credits with his birth name: “James Osterberg Jr. as Iggy Pop”) goes way back, and the singer turned up onscreen in the director’s films Dead Man and Coffee and Cigarettes. It seems natural he would be a subject for Jarmusch’s first documentary feature since another rock odyssey, Year of the Horse, the 1997 film that followed Neil Young and his band on tour.
What makes this witty, wildly affectionate tribute to the proto-punk band out of Ann Arbor, Michigan, so inclusive, however, is the even-handed embrace it extends to all the significant Stooges members, surviving and fallen; the film is dedicated to four of the latter.
It’s a testament to the respect of both Pop and Jarmusch for the music-as-collective spirit that the doc passes right over the singer’s successful solo career, which spawned classic cuts like “The Passenger,” “Lust for Life,” “Nightclubbing” and “Real Wild Child.” Instead the focus stays fixed on the rise and premature demise of the band, from the late 1960s through the mid-’70s. Their music remained largely under-appreciated at the time, being gradually rediscovered during the subsequent rise of punk. It picks up again when The Stooges reformed for a 2003 Coachella show and wraps with their 2010 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a milestone Pop celebrates with a triumphant two-finger salute. “Music is life and life is not a business,” he says during his speech.
That comment echoes issues with corporate label management touched upon throughout the film, notably in the problematic relationship with British manager Tony DeFries and his MainMan stable during Pop’s association with David Bowie.
If not every detail of the band’s fluctuating fortunes and lineup is chronicled with crystal clarity, the punchy scrappiness of Jarmusch’s film — stuffed not only with electric concert footage but with a cornucopia of amusing visual references, plus cool graphics and some droll original animation by James Kerr — is an appropriate fit for the subject.
Looking like a louche old pirate parked on a gold throne amid lots of skull art in the connective interview threaded throughout Gimme Danger, Pop is an extremely congenial guide with amazing recall, humor, a facility for descriptive turns of phrase and refreshing outspokenness. Detailing the evolution of The Stooges out of a non-political communist ethos, Pop takes a hilarious side-swipe at the peace-freedom-love acts assembled in commercially savvy corporate boardrooms, while a smiley-happy Crosby, Stills & Nash hit is heard.
Other notably articulate and insightful talking heads are guitarist James Williamson, who returned to the band after a three-decade career in technology, making him probably the only 60-year-old to jump from a Sony executive office to a sweaty rock stage; and recording industry veteran Danny Fields, who managed The Stooges and later The Ramones. At the same time he signed The Stooges to Elektra Records, he also signed MC5, another Michigan band acknowledged as instrumental in The Stooges’ emergence.
Pop memorably comments on Williamson’s skills, saying, “As a guitarist, James fills the space like somebody’s just let a drug dog into your house, sniffing all the corners.”
Bandmembers including bassist Mike Watt, saxophonist Steve Mackay and brothers Ron and Scott Asheton (respectively guitar and drums) also get their due. It’s typical of Pop’s unpretentious take on their musicianship that he explains his early relinquishment of drummer duties by confessing: “Eventually, I just got tired of looking at someone else’s butt all the time.”
The extensive drug use that contributed to the band’s sputtering disintegration is treated with typical matter-of-fact candor by Pop and others, noting the progression from weed and LSD to heroin. An accident that resulted in the band’s van and instruments being wrecked when a stoned driver plowed into a low-clearance bridge is held up as a cautionary signpost.
But much more engrossing is the analysis of how The Stooges’ sound and performance style coalesced, starting with the incorporation of clanging industrial noise and black jazz and blues influences, and continuing with the development of Pop’s primitive-man dance moves and the inauspicious introduction of his signature stage dive. The first time he catapulted himself into the audience, the crowd parted, leaving him on the floor with busted teeth. He says his preference for performing shirtless came from Egyptian pharaoh movies, illustrated with a choice clip of Yul Brynner raising Anne Baxter’s temperature in The Ten Commandments.
Examples such as that one of Jarmusch’s sly sense of humor make this doc as fun as it is illuminating. The use of Three Stooges clips yield laughs, as does a glimpse of the 1953 Lucille Ball comedy The Long, Long Trailer in reference to the trailer in which Pop was raised. Hearing him talk about the formative benefits of growing up in such close proximity to his supportive parents is a nice switch from the usual tales of rock-star rebellion.
But the real takeaway from Gimme Danger (the title comes from a track off The Stooges’ 1973 album, Raw Power) is the enduring charge of signature songs like “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” “No Fun,” “T.V. Eye” and “I Got a Right.” Nobody can dispute Pop’s description of the latter as a track that’s “fast as lightning and kicks like a mule.” And Jarmusch employs a welcome economy in his brisk assessment of the countless bands influenced by The Stooges — The Ramones, Sex Pistols, Sonic Youth, Circle Jerks, Buzzcocks and White Stripes among them.
Edited with relentless vitality by Affonso Goncalves and Adam Kurnitz, the Amazon Studios release will be devoured by nostalgic Stooges fans but also should send the uninitiated scrambling for downloads.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Out of Competition)
Production companies: Low Mind Films
With: Iggy Pop, Ron Asheton, Scott Asheton, James Williamson, Steve Mackay, Mike Watt, Kathy Asheton, Danny Fields
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Producers: Carter Logan, Fernando Sulichin, Rob Wilson
Executive producers: Serge Lobo, Jose Ibanez, Jon Kilik
Director of photography: Tom Krueger
Editors: Affonso Goncalves, Adam Kurnitz
Animation: James Kerr
Sales: Independent Film Company
Not rated, 108 minutes.
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