For better or for worse, rock ‘n’ roll has always been a commodity. Before there can be a movement, there must be equipment, electricity, and some semblance of musical skill. The songs are written, performed, recorded, produced, promoted, distributed, and, finally, consumed. And somewhere along this chain, musicians, bands, and ideas either excel or disappear completely.
The same could be said for American cinema, which has long tried to capture the anarchic and irreverent energy of devil-may-care rockers. Maybe that’s why in 2016, two typically narrative filmmakers, Ron Howard and Jim Jarmusch, turned their attention to rock documentaries. Howard’s doc, The Beatles: Eight Days A Week — The Touring Years, is a marvelous slice of a rock band becoming the most famous band of the 20th century. Using archival footage and modern-day interviews, Howard reconstructs the mania that The Beatles inspired and the tight friendship that fostered it. On the flipside is Jarmusch’s doc, Gimme Danger, which presents The Stooges as a similar tight-knit group of teenagers from working-class backgrounds trying to transform the world through music. Both The Beatles and The Stooges accomplished their ultimate goals, but as far as the history of rock ‘n’ roll is concerned, The Beatles are prestigious; The Stooges are notorious.
Gimme Danger also combines a plethora of concert footage, archival photographs, and modern-day interviews of The Stooges to construct a comprehensive picture of Detroit in the late 1960s and the impoverished roots that frontman Iggy Pop (born James Osterberg) and his mates—Dave Alexander on bass, Scott Asheton behind the drums and his brother Ron on guitar—came from.
Pop started his career as a drummer in the blues/rock vein, but he wanted more. He also wanted to stop staring at some guy’s rear end, so he moved in front of the kit, formed The Stooges, and followed his musical predilections. The result was something that was psychedelic but louder. A lot louder. Anytime radio deejay Dred Scott played a Stooges record, he pointed out that the needle on the VU meter jumps into the red and stays there for the duration of the song.
In the years to come, that wall of snarling guitars and screaming lyrics would become the signature of the punk movement. But in 1972, the number one song on Billboard’s Top 100 was “The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face” by Roberta Flack. By comparison, “Search and Destroy” doesn’t even sound like it came from the same planet.
Gimme Danger revolves primarily around Pop, and for good reasons. Pop is a fascinating character in the history of rock ‘n’ roll, and it was his style that The Stooges took their direction. And it was from The Stooges that all those young punk rockers took their cues—from the Sex Pistols and The Damned to Sonic Youth and Nirvana—effectively smuggling The Stooges’ subversive aesthetic into the mainstream. But The Stooges were still louder than everybody else. Now streaming on Amazon Prime.