Gimme Danger is clearly a love letter from a devoted fan. More importantly for cineastes among the prospective audience, that fan is Jim Jarmusch. The director’s auteurial signature is abundantly evident throughout, as is his intention, which is fortunate considering the fact that few filmmakers are better equipped to celebrate the career of any given band than Jarmusch is to chronicle the history of The Stooges. The end result is a satisfyingly cinematic take on the rockumentary subgenera that holds ample appeal for die-hard fans as well as for those with little to no knowledge of the subject.
For devotees of either Jarmusch or The Stooges, Gimme Danger provides a fascinating glimpse into the inner workings of a band as notorious as they were influential, peeling back the layers of disinformation, rumor and innuendo to allow the musicians to speak for themselves. Although the first twenty minutes of screen time are dedicated primarily to one James Osterberg – better known as Iggy Pop – the remainder of the film broadens its focus to the rest of the band, creating a balanced and evenhanded portrait that follows the development of The Stooges in roughly chronological presentation.
Jarmusch’s filmic bent enlivens what would otherwise be little more than a conventional rock doc, augmenting the standard talking head interviews and archival performance footage with clips from antiquated educational films and animated segments that look like something Terry Gilliam would’ve cobbled together from medieval illuminated manuscripts. When Jarmusch uses a shot from a silent Italian film depicting Dante’s conception of the Devil as a proxy for corrupt record company execs, or slaps black bars over the eyes of industry figures who wronged The Stooges to connote the inherent obscenity of such men, it becomes clear that this is not so much a documentary as an editorial statement. Jarmusch has little interest in fulfilling the traditional role of the documentarian as a passive observer and recorder of events. Rather, this is a simple case of an auteur telling a story from his own admittedly biased personal perspective.
This level of personal motivation is at once the film’s most interesting aspect and one of its principal shortcomings, as viewers are left with the distinct impression that Jarmusch is attempting to polish for posterity the reputation of his tarnished idols, leaving most of the band’s more egregiously bad behavior on the cutting room floor. As with Ron Howard’s recent Beatles doc, hero worship can get in the way of unvarnished honesty, leaving us with a story that feels willfully incomplete. That said, the film is expounding on less thoroughly covered territory than the history of the Fab Four, meaning that even in its relative one-sidedness Jarmusch’s documentary treatment is novel in both intent and execution.
If Gimme Danger falls somewhat short of pure objectivity, it nevertheless provides some expanded insight into a critical chapter in the history of rock music. Learning that Pop was as influenced by Charles Mingus and Nico as he was by the MC5 is not quite revelatory, but it does provide an interesting layer of complexity to an artist that has been simplistically defined by his offstage debauchery for far too long. As with last month’s Danny Says, this film adds some much needed context to an under-analyzed aspect of contemporary culture, and hearing some of the stories recounted in that previous biopic from the perspective of the artists rather than the studio proves to be a fascinating counterpoint; the two would make a great double feature.
Jarmusch has delivered a unique piece of filmmaking, a documentary that’s every bit as entertaining as it is informative. Regardless of your personal feelings on The Stooges and their work, there can be little doubt as to the significance of their contribution to twentieth century American music. The service Jarmusch provides in recounting their story through his distinctive lens is to imbue these larger-than-life personalities with a humanity and relatability that contributes an enhanced dimensionality to their mythos. More importantly, the filmmaker’s aesthetic sensibilities are so closely aligned with those of The Stooges output that the film itself is as raw, powerful and fun as any of their better albums. Like the musicians it lionizes, Gimme Danger is most enjoyable in the absence of excessive intellectualization, and Jarmusch does a commendable job of getting the analysis out of the way so that the music can stand on its own merits. Rated R for drug content and language.
Opens Friday at Grail Moviehouse.