Sometimes starting at the end is the best way to tell a story. Legendary indie filmmaker Jim Jarmusch's documentary Gimme Danger begins the story of the Stooges — the proto-punk band co-founded by then 20-year-old Iggy Pop — by presenting the band's messy and defeated 1974 break-up.
Of course, that break-up wasn't really the end of the Stooges' story. The iconic Iggy (real name James Osterberg Jr.) continues to enjoy an often-brilliant solo career, and he and the other surviving Stooges mounted a series of triumphant 21st-century reunions. But the band's "sputtering" demise (as Iggy describes it in the film) reminds old fans and notifies newcomers that the Stooges' story was anything but rags-to-riches. Like so many influential artists, the band's unique status and reputation were built slowly over a period of decades.
Jarmusch has his own special status as a founder of American independent film. His career highlights from 30-plus years include indie classics like Stranger Than Paradise, Mystery Train and Broken Flowers. The writer-director made Gimme Danger at the request of his old friend Iggy, and his film is best taken as a love letter to the band from a longtime fan.
Six years younger than Iggy and hailing from Akron, Ohio, Jarmusch discovered the Stooges (who emerged from the not-too-distant Ann Arbor/Detroit area) while in high school. The band's wild and primitive music contrasted sharply with both the blues-and-pop-based British Invasion and the hippie-era music coming from the West Coast. Like the Velvet Underground, the Stooges initially earned a small following that craved messy experimentation and shared a darker worldview.
Jarmusch intends Gimme Danger as a subjective appreciation of what the director himself describes in the film's opening sequence as "the greatest rock 'n' roll band ever." There's a lot of historical detail in the film — too much for casual fans. But Jarmusch is content to cover the topics that interest him and let others fall by the wayside, all while letting the extended Stooges family speak for themselves. That approach seems a reasonable corrective for a band so under-appreciated during its brief but storied career.
The film's visual style relies heavily on collage, combining vintage commercials, newsreel footage and other found materials with new animations and rare, often previously unseen footage of the Stooges. Stories told by Iggy and other band members in interviews conducted for the film give shape to the archival material.
Primary topics include the band's discovery by record-industry visionary Danny Fields (with an assist from fellow Michigan rock pioneers the MC5), little-known influences on the Stooges such as experimental composer Harry Partch, and the first time David Bowie took Iggy under his wing. It's all tightly constructed and flows naturally from one episode to the next, but Gimme Danger is more conventional in its methods than Jarmusch fans might expect. It's as if the director wanted to remove himself from the equation and prevent his own creative choices from overshadowing the story of his favorite band.
The film finally arrives at a parade of clips featuring many world-beating, convention-defying bands directly influenced by the Stooges, from the Ramones to the Sex Pistols to Sonic Youth. Many are shown gleefully breathing new life into Stooges songs that inspired them. That's the legacy of a truly great band — and the reason films like Gimme Danger deserve to be seen.