Gimme Danger, Jim Jarmusch’s new documentary about the feral proto-punk act The Stooges, opens with some of the only televised footage that exists of The Stooges in their prime. Playing the Cincinnati Pop Festival saw the band unleashed for the first time on a mainstream American audience and frontman Iggy Pop decided to mark the occasion by diving headfirst into the crowd and smearing peanut butter on himself, a markedly tamer version of his usual stage act, rolling around in broken glass. The old timey presenters raised eyebrows almost personify the clash occurring between generation and culture. The film then smash cuts to black and jumps back three years to explore how some delinquents from just outside Detroit ended up in that position, and unfortunately it never quite reaches the heights that are teased.
“Re-forming popular American song form” was the reason that a group of genteel arms manufacturers in Sweden choose to bestow literature’s highest honour on Bob Dylan, and honestly though, the award could just have easily have been bestowed onto The Stooges. Where Dylan’s music draws on well known traditions and ideas, The Stooges where truly a band that emerged from little more than suburban angst, shitty amphetamines, decent marijuana and whole lot of belief to actually alter the course of popular American imagination. Much of their journey, how they performed, snorted and fucked their way across the American Midwest in the late 60’s, decimating the hippy dream, is chronicled in Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s excellent oral history of punk, Please Kill Me, which dedicates about 200 pages to The Stooges. As a die hard of The Stoogs I’d be intimately familiar with Please Kill Me and as a result large chunks of Jarmusch’s film feel like a rethread. Please Kill Me gave equal time to every member of The Stooges, which gave it a well rounded and kaleidoscopic feel. James Williamson and, in what must be one of life’s single greatest ironies, Iggy Pop are the only surviving members of The Stooges, which relegates the other members to mere archived footage. Pop himself ends up dominating the proceedings, telling the story from a literal golden throne, and the film feels like his story rather than that of his band. This puts Jarmusch in a bind of sorts; he can only really get Iggy’s side of the story but he only looks at his time in The Stooges and ignores his solo albums, which leads to a film that feels incredibly undercooked. Surely he could have augmented the bands history by having just a small percentage of those who clearly bear the influence of The Stooges (among them Nick Cave, Sonic Youth, The White Stripes, The Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Queens of the Stone Age, The Sex Pistols, St. Vincent, Spiritualized, Japandroids, Mac De Marco, The Pixies, The Hives) to add some more voices, but instead his just focuses on the band. Introducing some other musicians would have given a sense of how important The Stooges are and it could have added depth as to why their mixture of blues, rock and free jazz never quite took off but instead we just have to take Iggy and Jarmusch’s word for it.
In terms of facts the only new thing here that fans probably won’t know is the influence of Soupy Sales, a demonic clown that appeared on children’s television. That aside there’s very little to entice anybody that knows a lot about the band. The distinct advantage that a film has over a book is that it could obviously use performance clips, but these are few and far between when it concerns The Stooges heyday. Like last year’s horrendous Cobain doc Montage of Heck, the film uses animated footage to spruce up interviews and anecdotes and whilst Gimme Danger is nowhere near as bad as Montage of Heck, these still prove to be the highlights.
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For those who aren’t fans of The Stooges I’d wager Gimme Danger offers a good insight into the bands history and a fairly solid grasp of what makes their sound so seductive. For this reason I’d say it’s worth watching if you’re new to the band and interested in who they came to be. That said, a friend of mine mentioned he never knew that James Williamson, the bands second guitarist, became a Sony executive after the group collapsed and that he would have liked the film to explore that a bit more. The really is evocative of the fact that ultimately Gimme Danger is far shallower than it should be. Jim Jarmusch is a film maker who’s concerns have long been culture clashes, non-conformity and rock and roll and his style is so daring that he seems ideal to helm a doc on The Stooges. Hell, his next feature Paterson seems to concern itself chiefly with artistic inspiration. A surprise really that this wasn’t much better than it could have been.
Gimme Danger is in cinemas from Friday November 18th.
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