Jim Jarmusch’s documentary Gimme Danger, about Iggy and the Stooges, does not feel like it is Oscar-hunting. Sure, it might be somewhere in the awards race. But the film doesn’t spend time on the kind of psycho-investigation (Amy) or human scavenger hunt (Searching For Sugarman) that can lead a music doc to the big prize. Instead, it is just a loud, hard, cinematic dive toward the bottom of Detroit industrial rock in the late 1960s and early 1970s. And what deep bottom that is.
Gimme Danger screened at the Toronto Film Festival on Thursday afternoon, after a trip around the world. One of several music documentaries in Toronto–others are Chasing Trane, I Called Him Morgan and The Sixth Beatle– it had previously shown at festivals from Cannes to Sarajevo to Melbourne, so there were no surprises. And the film already has distributors, including Magnolia Pictures and Amazon Studios. But it drew a surprisingly solid crowd at a press and industry screening on Thursday. (And rumor has it that Iggy and Jarmusch will be on hand for a public showing here next week.) Some of us dragged our feet a little, so as not to be the first in line—nothing more pathetic than a search for glory days. “I was at that concert,” whispered the woman next to me in the theater, speaking about one of the later Stooges’ performances. I had been at some of the earlier shows, when the Stooges—or the Psychedelic Stooges as they were first called in Detroit—were an opening act for the MC5.
On Thursday, it was a relief to see them in a movie without phony sentiment. There hasn’t been much of that in post-Motown Detroit, not then, not now. In the film, Jarmusch mostly identified Iggy by his real name, Jim Osterberg, and interviewed him extensively, and without explanation, in a laundry room. James Williamson, one of the guitarists, spoke in a bathroom. Those were good, basic settings for a group whose seminal works were the nearly word-free No Fun and I Wanna Be Your Dog.
Some stuff in the movie, I knew. It was obvious to anyone who lived and listened in Detroit that the heavier rock bands of the Sixties—The Stooges, the MC5, and maybe Frost or Bob Seger and the Last Heard—had picked up sound from the factories. Speaking to Jarmusch, Osterberg describes hearing and trying to match the noise of machinery in Ford’s Rouge plant.
But I never made the connection to Soupy Sales. Iggy/Osterberg said he favored minimalist lyrics to honor what he had learned from Sales, a children’s television host, who insisted that kids write him letters of 25 words or less.
Neither did I spot a link to the Howdy Doody television show. Osterberg said his stage antics were inspired by that show’s Clarabell the Clown; and Jarmusch proved it with footage of Clarabell in an on-camera spasm, stopping just short of an Iggy-like dive into the crowd.
The Stooges may or may not have been what Jarmusch calls them in Gimme Danger: “The greatest rock and roll band ever.” But they’re certainly the greatest rock band I never quite figured out, until now.