As uninterested as usual in preaching to the uncool, Jim Jarmusch aims Gimme Danger straight at the hearts of those who already love, or at least appreciate, his good friend Iggy Pop. The filmmaker declares at the start of the documentary that Iggy and the Stooges were “the greatest rock and roll band ever,” but makes little effort to back up that claim, never interviewing critics or other musicians for officially sanctioned opinions or offering much in the way of analysis about what made the group’s music so special.
Jarmusch relies almost entirely on Iggy, his surviving bandmates, and a few people who knew them well to lay out a chronological history of Iggy’s musical development as a boy, a young man, and an adult who carved a defiantly “unprofessional” yet impactful musical career out of raw talent, charm, voraciously curious intelligence, and a seemingly bottomless well of impish energy. The film also makes a case for the influence the Stooges had on many bands that followed, crediting Iggy with being the father of punk rock.
Gimme Danger derives much of its appeal from Iggy himself—or “Jim Osterberg as Iggy Pop,” as he’s listed in the credits, presumably because he’s bemused or reflective here rather than playing the pumped-up performance monkey who invented crowd surfing and often showed up to performances so high he could barely remember his own lyrics. His gymnast’s body folded gracefully into a chair, Iggy emanates the effortless cool of a man confident enough to laugh at himself, and at the often colorful, sometimes absurd situations he got himself into as a young man.
Unfamiliar archival footage, much of it as fresh and raw as Iggy’s music, often runs behind the musician’s lively narration. Some serves a literal function, like the scenes of New York from the late 1960s or early ’70s that run as he talks about moving there to record his first album. Some is played for laughs, like the badly acted educational film, very likely shown in high schools at about the time Iggy was a teenager, in which a painfully earnest counselor advises an even more earnest student about a dilemma similar to one that Iggy just talked about having experienced when he was that age.
Jarmusch occasionally tries to do a little too much with the archival footage by doubling or even tripling his exposures, in an attempt to echo the chaos and overstimulation of the band members’ lives that feels more incoherent than evocative. More successful are the scenes of Iggy and the Stooges performing or rehearsing, which capture the propulsive energy of their music, Iggy’s spastic, ecstatic dancing and his fondness for diving into crowds of amped-up fans. As his bass player, Mike Watt, puts it, the way Iggy performed “reminds you that life, big time, is in the moment.”
Even then, the last and best word comes from Iggy himself, in a snippet from an old interview. “It’s Dionysic,” he says of his music. “If you know the difference between Dionysic and Apollonian art.” Little detailed gems like that, studded here and there, make Gimme Danger more than just a collection of anecdotes and film clips. They reveal the erudition and shrewd self-awareness that Osterberg drew on to become Iggy, a bouncing ball of sinew and id who seemed to operate purely on instinct.