Michael Leader catches the Cannes premiere of Jim Jarmusch’s documentary chronicling the career of The Stooges…
What a treat! Not one, but two new films from independent cinema deity Jim Jarmusch in the Official Selection at Cannes. The first was Paterson, which Film4’s Catherine Bray reviewed earlier this week, and here’s the flip-side, a rousing documentary about proto-punk pioneers The Stooges.
Formed in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1967 by former jobbing drummer James Osterberg (aka Iggy Pop), brothers Ron and Scott Asheton (guitar and drums, respectively), and bassist Dave Alexander, The Stooges perfected a chaotic, caterwauling subgenre of garage rock that proved impossible to market in both the psychedelic late-60s and the more commercially-driven early-70s, despite the efforts of Elektra Records and, later, David Bowie and his MainMan management firm. Perhaps best known as the incubator that birthed the serpentine, shirtless behemoth Iggy Pop, The Stooges’ three LPs only grew in stature as time passed, greatly influencing many key musical moments in the years since, from punk to alternative rock to grunge.
Jim Jarmusch – clearly a rock ‘n roll nut as evidenced by his soundtrack choices, casting decisions and recurring thematic obsessions – has only flirted with the music documentary genre once before, with the rarely-revisited Neil Young tour movie Year Of The Horse, and those expecting that Gimme Danger will match the tone of the director’s feature films may be somewhat disappointed – for this is, unavoidably, a conventional, largely linear rock-doc, chock-full of talking heads and archival footage. Happily, however, it’s an absolute riot.
If you look, you’ll find Jarmusch’s fingerprints all over Gimme Danger, from the odd bit of off-camera chatter (“We are interrogating Jim Osterberg…”) to a soundtrack cut from his sludgy, Stooges-influenced side project SQÜRL, but the director clears the stage to tell the story of this highly influential, mythologised band. Having an avowed mega-fan behind the camera brings not just the expected energy in revisiting the highlights of the band’s short recording history, it also balances the film’s outlook, imbuing the dreaded back-half of any retrospective with an infectious curiosity. Take, for example, the retelling of the band’s late-game ‘reunification’, as told by bassist Mike Watt (Minutemen, fIREHOSE), who plots a path from Todd Haynes’ 1998 glam-rock pseudo-biopic Velvet Goldmine (featuring a character based on Pop), through a debilitating illness that prevented him from playing music, to his recovery covering Stooges songs live with various musicians (including Dinosaur Jr’s J Mascis and the Ashetons), to the eventual revival of the band’s initial lineup, with Watt filling in on bass, at Coachella in 2003.
Also key is the incredible story of James Williamson, guitarist and songwriter on scuzzy 1973 classic Raw Power, who dropped out of the music industry to become an electrical engineer and, eventually, vice president of technical standards at Sony, only to rejoin The Stooges in 2009, sounding as ferocious as ever, while looking like someone’s retired uncle had won a competition to be a rock star for the night.
It would have been all too easy to cash in on Iggy Pop’s boundless charisma and inexhaustible store of anecdotes (from hanging out with Nico to inventing, and botching, the first stage dive); it’s trickier to shift focus to the band behind the frontman, some of whom, including Scott Asheton and saxophonist Steve Mackay, passed away after being interviewed, yet before the finished film’s premiere. To many they may have been known as ‘Iggy & The Stooges’, but Pop asserts throughout that the band were philosophically, if not politically, Communist. In Gimme Danger, Jarmusch has crafted a loving, detailed documentary that perfectly reflects this musical ideal.