Iggy Pop and not much more
Jim Jarmusch‘s new film about the pioneering punk band The Stooges is called Gimme Danger. Was our author Phil Butland expecting too much?
2016 was a productive year for film director Jim Jarmusch. In Autumn he brought out “Paterson” – a languid film about a bus driver-slash-poet (https://theleftberlin.wordpress.com/culture/film-reviews-and-previews/film-review-paterson/). Now the documentary film which he filmed at the same time, will be released in German cinemas.
Nothing happened in “Paterson”. Several times over. In “Gimme Danger” not much happens either – somewhat surprising, as the subject of the film is the legendary music group The Stooges and their singer, the ur-punk Iggy Pop, who is celebrating his seventieth birthday this week.
Before the moaning, the good news: Iggy seems to be absolutely incapable of being boring, even if his anecdotes don’t always have much content. Once he saw Elvis Presley in a car. But maybe it was not Elvis. That’s it. Nonetheless, Iggy’s energy is contagious and you are more interested in the man than in what he has to say.
Secondly, even if Jarmusch’s contention that the Stooges are “the greatest rock and roll band in history,” doesn’t really convince, it is undeniable that their influence was vast. Toward the end of the film we see a number of record sleeves – some phenomenal, others less so – from artists who owe a massive debt to the Stooges. The argument that punk rock would be much more mundane without The Stooges is very convincing.
What was particularly revolutionary about the Stooges was that they were way ahead of their time. Their three most significant albums were recorded between 1969 and 1973, when the music scene was still dominated by uninspiring hippies and over-clever progressive rock musicians.
In the film, Iggy claims – not without justification – that the Stooges did a lot to kill the sixties. For Iggy, the sixties meant “corrupt performers” like Crosby, Stills and Nash or wordy eloquent lyrics like those of Bob Dylan. Iggy’s preferred role model was Soupy Sales, the TV comedian who warned against using more than 25 words to write a letter.
Problems of the documentary
But in spite of the lively interviews and the inspiring concert footage, the film is ultimately very conventional and hardly distinguishable from the thousands of other straight-to-video rock documentaries that you can pick up at a flea market for a few cents.
Part of the reason is that Jarmusch has a real problem that there are few filmed recordings of concerts from that time. His solution is to repeatedly use the same concert footage interspersed with clips from old films and TV series. These have a very limited connection to the music, and “Gimme Danger” often ends up as a bad copy of a Julien Temple film (and music film makers don’t come much more overrated than Temple).
Drug-addled old men
Jarmusch’s next problem is that he can’t film Iggy all the time, and not all of Iggy’s drug-addled band-mates match his level of eloquence. Parts of the film consist of little more than old men being filmed trying to remember their youth. Their rambling reminiscences act as another barrier between the people watching the film and the exciting times being discussed.
Response with a somersault
For me the main problem is the attempt to describe the music of the Stooges in isolation, without reference to the outside world or even to contemporary musical development. We hear – quite correctly – how the Stooges influenced the birth of punk in 1976-7. But because the film focusses exclusively on the group and not Iggy’s solo work, there is no mention that – with no little help from David Bowie – Iggy brought out his two greatest albums (“Lust for Life” and “The Idiot”) at exactly this time. Iggy was not just the honorary godfather of the punk movement – he was also an active participant.
Similarly, Jarmusch tries to separate the music from political development in the outside world. We hear that the Stooges grew up alongside the MC5 – a much more political group, also from Detroit. The manager of the MC5, John Sinclair, founded the White Panther Party in solidarity with the Black Panthers. In 1968 Sinclair invited the Stooges to play at the protests outside the Democrat Party Convention in Chicago. Iggy explains that he could not say “yes” but could not imagine saying “no”. Instead, his response was to somersault through the room.
The contradictions remain
It should go without saying that no band’s music should be judged on its ability to make political statements – and this applies just as much to anti-establishment like the Stooges. However, Jarmusch’s direction adopts the group’s apolitical nihilism. The Stooges are depicted as an inexplicable phenomenon – not as a product of their time. In this sense, “Gimme Danger” is not a bad film, but it is one that could, and should, be much better.
The film ends with the reunion concerts, which brought the group back together in 2003. The music was still amazing, but the Stooges were now no longer dangerous. Indeed they were now part of the establishment against which they had screamed (very loudly). As part of their institutionalization, we join them as they are admitted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. All that is missing is the TV advert for car insurance that Iggy made in 2009.
Nonetheless, Iggy maintains that the Stooges are still Communists. His evidence is that he demanded four times as much money for the cash-in reunion tour, so they could share the wealth equally. It is one of the contradictions of the Stooges (and in general of rebel music under capitalism) that he is partly right. Iggy remains a refreshing alternative to the uninspired blandness of Ed Sheeran and co.
Summary: The Stooges and especially Iggy are still relevant and it is worthwhile to get better acquainted with their music. But the film lacks the excitement and – say it – the danger that you get from the albums and concerts. “Gimme Danger” is probably worth seeing anyway, but if you don’t have much money, you should rather buy the soundtrack than go to the film. The film is unfortunately a missed opportunity – an ordinary documentary that should have been extraordinary.