There’s a moment in “Gimme Danger” when Jim Osterberg, better known for the last half-century as Iggy Pop, lays waste to “Marrakesh Express” and its soft-rockin’ ilk. He does it with a few gleefully disgusted boop-ba-deeps, capping a characteristically concise, perfectly barbed assessment of the Laurel Canyon-dreamin’ record biz of the late ’60s and ’70s. Even if you still cherish your Crosby, Stills and Nash albums, it’s a moment to savor, and hardly the film’s only one.
With his new documentary, Jim Jarmusch, whose feature “Only Lovers Left Alive” was in part a valentine to Detroit’s decrepit beauty, pays reverent tribute to what’s arguably one of the Motor City’s greatest exports: Iggy and the Stooges. With their hard-driving riffs and monosyllabic lyrics, their free jazz drone-scape and the crazy undulations of frontman Pop, the proto-punk Stooges stood about as far outside the music mainstream as you could while still recording for major labels. It’s no wonder the man who signed them, Danny Fields, would go on to manage the Ramones — another quartet of innovative misfits for whom commercial success proved elusive.
Jarmusch puts his cards on the table and his heart on his sleeve, declaring the Stooges “the greatest rock ’n’ roll band ever” in the film’s opening minutes. “Gimme Danger” is essentially a family album assembled by an enamored outsider. Everyone interviewed was in the band, working for the band (Fields) or related to someone in the band (Kathy Asheton).
There are no dark and dirty secrets revealed, no deep dives into personality clashes or offstage episodes. Neither are there talking heads pontificating on the “meaning” of the Stooges. That might disappoint anyone looking for a behind-the-scenes scoop or definitive critical statement, but it’s the right fit for this scraggly, defiant crew of working-class Midwesterners.
Osterberg is the onscreen narrator of the saga, and as he showed on the small screen, in conversation with another silver-haired admirer, Anthony Bourdain, he’s an immensely engaging raconteur. Delivered in his compelling baritone growl, each uncommon turn of phrase is an illuminating jolt, whether of middle-finger-to-the-mainstream manifesto or warm reminiscence.
Having survived the crucible of hard drugs and hard living, Iggy Pop exudes elder-statesman elegance without the patina of self-importance or false humility. He knows he made good music. And he’s happy to tell the official story.
As he and Jarmusch lay it out, in straightforward chronology, it’s the story of a band’s rawboned invention, its “sputtering demise,” second and third chances and, in 2003, its triumphant “reunification.”
With detours for heroin, David Bowie and random advice from Andy Warhol, it’s the story of a band that eschewed fashionable messages and causes and promptly got labeled nihilistic. Yet their inspirations ran merry and deep. Among the formative influences Iggy highlights were kids’ show host Soupy Sales, avant-garde composer Harry Partch and jazz immortal Ornette Coleman.
It was after his early stints as a sideman for Chicago blues musicians that Osterberg returned to Ann Arbor, Mich., then a hotbed of cutting-edge music and art, and teamed with brothers Ron and Scott Asheton and Dave Alexander. Endearingly, many chapters in the Stooges’ on-again, off-again story involve trips back to the cocoon of parents’ houses. And some of Iggy Pop’s most memorable recollections center on the long, long trailer that was his family home.
Beyond the choice stills, posters and vintage footage that he’s collected for the film, Jarmusch amps the narrative with jokey movie and TV clips that reinforce the baby boomer pop-culture references lacing Pop’s commentary: Lucy and Ricky show up vis-à-vis that trailer. The glamorous ghouls Gomez and Morticia make an appearance that somehow feels as inevitable as that of Moe, Larry and Curly.
The Stooges were postwar kids who took to the stage with fearless, demented exuberance, Iggy writhing half-naked. With “Gimme Danger,” Jarmusch doesn’t ask him to strip down further. He simply thanks him.
Rating: R, for drug content and language
Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes
Playing: Nuart Theatre, West Los Angeles; Regency South Coast Village 3, Santa Ana; Tristone Palm Desert 10 Cinemas, Palm Desert