Punk Rock

Raw Power: Jim Jarmusch's Unhinged Stooges Film Crashes MFAH

Today, Iggy Pop and the Stooges are considered a hugely influential and important band. Despite their relatively short time in existence, they were the group that launched hundreds of punk, hardcore and garage-rock units. Their wider recognition culminated in a spit-shined 2010 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which saw them performing for an audience at the ceremony that likely couldn’t name one of their songs.

But in 1973, the Stooges were crap. Really. Beset by poor record sales, chaotic concerts, general revulsion by most music listeners, and drug problems, they blew their then-second chance at a career. And as a title card in Gimme Danger, the superlative new Jim Jarmusch-helmed film, notes, “they were dirt.”

That assessment is just one of the reasons that Gimme Danger is one of the best rock documentaries in what has become a contemporary golden era for the genre. It shows how a band of raw, misfit, no-holds-barred losers from the unlikely rock and roll town of filthy, blue-collar Ann Arbor, Michigan, could create such a legacy.

And largely on the shoulders of a front man who is not only one of music’s most frenetic, wild and utterly unique performers. A man who might cut himself onstage on purpose, smear peanut butter on his chest or writhe in seemingly impossible physical contortions on the stage (and for the entire show) or in the audience as an extension of his personality.

A life — as he tells Jarmusch’s cameras — trying to one-up the jocko fuckheads who tried to rock his family’s trailer (yes, he actually grew up in a trailer) off its wheels. A journey that would take him from answering to the name James Osterberg to Iggy Pop.

"Being that Iggy approached us to make the film, I didn’t necessarily expect him  to be as hands-off as he was," says producer Carter Logan. "But Jim Osterberg’s idea was to choose Jim Jarmusch and let him go with it. This was a gracious act of trust coming from a true gentleman. It was very deliberate and diplomatic. And that’s who Jim Osterberg is. Iggy Pop might dive onto your head, but Jim Osterberg is on a beach somewhere right now reading Alexis de Tocqueville."

Fun facts that Gimme Danger tells us about Mssr. Pop:

* His consistent and constant preference for giving bare-chested performances was inspired by seeing the power projected by ’50s Biblical movie pharaohs like Yul Brynner in The Ten Commandments.

* His inspiration as a musical lyricist was TV comedian Soupy Sales, who asked his young viewers to send in letters of only 25 words or less. Pop says, “I didn’t feel like I was Bob Dylan.”

* He pretty much invented the stage-dive. But upon his first try at the stunt, the two “large women” in the audience he thought would catch or cushion him split when he took flight. The resulting thud on the bare floor left him with two fewer front teeth — one of them embedded in his lip.

*When a conscientious Ron Asheton called up Moe Howard to ask if it was okay for the band to be called The Stooges, the bowl-haircutted comedian reportedly said, "I don't give a fuck what you call your band, so long as it's not the THREE Stooges!"

Of course, while Iggy is the film’s focal point and gets the most face time, Jarmusch (who has also cast Pop as an actor in several of his movies) is sure to make certain the rest of the band is represented as well. Guitarist/bassist Ron Asheton, who died in 2009, is seen in archival footage.

His brother, drummer Scott Asheton, who died in 2015; guitarist James Williamson; and part-time sax man Steve MacKay (who died in 2015) offer reflections in contemporary interviews. Asheton sister Kathy, Stooges early champion/manager Danny Fields, and more recent reunion-era bassist Mike Watt also add depth and color to the commentary.

Unfortunately, there seems to be no existing interview footage of original bassist Dave Alexander, who died in 1975 at age 27 as a result of his incessant drinking.

Gimme Danger also has segments of animation, mostly illustrating bizarre and hilarious tales — including one in which an ignorant Pop bought a marijuana plant with dirty roots intact and tried to cure it in a clothes dryer — and use of movie/TV/stock footage.

"For us the aim from the start was to make a film that would pay tribute to this incredible band, telling the story in their own words, illustrated in a visual style which represents their music as best we could. Iggy speaks about the countless forms of music that influenced them, but we also learned that band, in particular the Asheton brothers, were TV junkies," Logan continues.

"The fantastic animation by James Kerr reflected this as well. In his work, James used elements of very old classical painting, tore those apart, and reconfigured the detritus into the Stooges world," the producer adds. "It’s deliberately, intelligently stupid, which is extremely difficult to pull off."

But it’s the live footage of the band during its late-’60s/early ‘70s heyday that is revelatory, and all the more reason to see this film in a real theater with a kick-ass sound system. It also shows you how genuinely unhinged and unpredictable a Stooges show could be: a barely contained riot that just happened to feature howling vocals and heavy instruments. And maybe Ron Asheton would flash a piece of the genuine Nazi memorabilia he liked to collect as a way to bond with his U.S. veteran father.

Iggy and the Stooges released only three albums between 1968 and 1973: The Stooges, Fun House and Raw Power. But one could argue that no troika of records made a bigger impact on future musicians. The members of the Ramones bonded as teens largely because they were the only four people they knew who liked the Stooges. And the film includes a montage of acts like Black Flag, the Dead Boys, the Cramps, the Damned, the Sex Pistols and — yes — the Ramones performing Stooges covers.

"When I think about the Stooges in musical terms, what sets them apart to me is their synthesis of power and fluidity. They are volcanic — there’s an eruption from the front man at the top, but the real force is in the molten magma flow from the guitars and seismic aftershocks of percussion," Logan sums up.

"In historical terms, there was absolutely nothing that sounded like them in the ’60s — there were disparate heavy blues bands, avant-garde noise artists, free jazz pioneers, but no other band combined these elements like the Stooges did. Likewise post-Stooges punk, hardcore and alternative rock bands took pieces of influence away but never approached this balance."

Gimme Danger will screen at 7 p.m. December 2 and 9; 6 and 8 p.m. Saturday, December 10; and 5 p.m. Sunday, December 11 in the Brown Auditorium at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (1001 Bissonnet). See mfah.org/film for details. $7-$9.
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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero