Considering the frenzied psychedelic circus it might have been, “Gimme Danger,” Jim Jarmusch’s reverent documentary portrait of Iggy Pop, one of rock’s ultimate daredevil provocateurs, is downright prim. There are casual confessions of self-destructive, out-of-control behavior by Iggy Pop and his band, the Stooges. But you don’t see it. You only hear about it, and it’s glossed over as yesterday’s bad-boy antics.
The film includes no retrospective scenes of indiscriminate drinking and drug taking, rampant sexual behavior or fights among bandmates. Iggy Pop is not shown vomiting onstage or rolling around on broken glass, both of which he was known to do. Not a groupie is to be seen. His current wife – his third – is mentioned but not introduced. Which is strange for a film about rock music’s closest equivalent to Dionysus. For the film’s intents and purposes, Iggy Pop hasn’t had a personal life outside of rock ‘n’ roll.
Perhaps the director, who calls the Stooges “the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band ever,” worried that hair-raising tales of past excesses would undermine this exercise in canonization. “Gimme Danger” also inexplicably leaves out Iggy Pop’s solo career, when he released the great albums “The Idiot” and “Lust for Life.” That said, “Gimme Danger” is still plenty entertaining and includes many moments of foaming-at-the-mouth musical fury.
The spine of the documentary is an in-depth interview with Iggy Pop, 69, who tells his story in a deep, almost feral growl. Occasionally, his face lights up with a demonic grin, and you glimpse the soul of a proudly unrepentant wild man, who even more than Frank Sinatra, did it “his way” and lived to tell the tale.
But between those tantalizing flashes of the anarchic hell-raiser, he comes across as a smart, articulate chronicler of his own history and a musician fully aware of his influences and proud of his place in the annals of rock. Other members of the Stooges are interviewed separately and offer little of interest. The most informative is James Williamson, who left the band in the early 1980s and became a successful electronics engineer. He returned after the death of the guitarist Ron Asheton in 2009.
In performance footage, Iggy Pop is a live wire. Cadaverous and sinewy, with dyed blond hair, burning blue eyes and a chiseled torso, he is an extraordinary specimen. His look, he says, was partly inspired by Hollywood pharaohs like Yul Brynner in “The Ten Commandments.”
For those who imagine that feverishly working out and losing enough weight can preserve a perfectly toned body at any age, images of Iggy Pop, over 60 and performing shirtless, reveal that there is no forestalling the ravages of time. At a certain point, the flesh starts hanging off the bone, no matter how skeletal the frame.
Iggy Pop, born James Newell Osterberg Jr., recalls growing up in a trailer home outside of Ann Arbor, Michigan, with amazingly supportive parents. It was Soupy Sales, an early television idol, who instructed his audience to limit their letters to 25 words or less, and it’s advice that Iggy Pop took to heart when he began writing songs. While working in a record store, he discovered the avant-garde music of Harry Partch and other experimental composers. When he was briefly managed by Tony DeFries, David Bowie’s manager, he turned down the opportunity to star on Broadway in “Peter Pan.”
“Gimme Danger” is handsomely designed and embellished with stop-motion animation depicting scenes from Iggy Pop’s childhood. It makes a strong case for a man who is widely credited with being the first rock performer to dive off the stage and into the audience, as the protopunk rebel who spawned a lineage that includes the Sex Pistols, the Ramones and those who came after.
The closest “Gimme Danger” comes to a Rosebud moment of revelation is Iggy Pop’s recollection of how, as a teenager, contemptuous frat boys rocked the family trailer back and forth.
“Ever since,” he says, his eyes blazing, “I’ve been out to get ‘em.”
Rated: R for drug content, some strong language. Starring: Iggy Pop, Ron Asheton and Mike Watt. Director: Jim Jarmusch. Running time: 108 minutes. Theater: Flicks.