The next time you find yourself on the corner of State and Liberty, walk into the Potbelly Sandwich Shop and take a deep breath. Maybe even see if you can order something with peanut butter on it. Because that’s where, in 1967, when Discount Records was occupying that space, a blues drummer from Ypsilanti named James Osterberg met three local musicians—brothers Ron and Scott Asheton, and their neighbor Dave Alexander. Shortly after, the foursome started a band, the Stooges, which Osterberg fronted under his new alias, Iggy Pop. In the annals of rock ‘n’ roll history, it may not be quite as important a moment as John meeting Paul at a 1957 church social in Liverpool, but it’s not that far off, either.
The Stooges were together, more or less (frequently less), from 1967 to 1973, and that era is spectacularly covered in the new documentary Gimme Danger. Directed by indie film legend Jim Jarmusch (Down by Law, Dead Man, Only Lovers Left Alive), Gimme Danger premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May and finished touring the fall festival circuit just in time to open at the Michigan Theater on November 4.
Though the film is very good, it’s not perfect. Jarmusch has worked in varying degrees of documentary before, but this is the first time he’s made a conventional one. The result feels at times too boilerplate, and there are some curious omissions. For example, there’s a lot of focus on how the band recorded three albums, but little mention of their lack of commercial success. Fans surely know the Stooges weren’t exactly lighting the Billboard charts on fire, but something still feels missing.
One choice that works really well is Jarmusch’s use of accounts only from people that lived with the band—the musicians (including later members James Williamson, Steve Mackay, and Mike Watt), and Ron and Scott’s sister, Kathy Asheton, who still lives in Ann Arbor. There are also plenty of new interviews with Scott Asheton, who died in 2014.
For people who love rock ‘n’ roll and people who love Ann Arbor, the killer historical footage alone is worth the price of admission. Images like Iggy Pop standing in front of Nickels Arcade in the late ’60s feel like invaluable excavations of the city’s history. But Danger’s real t(h)reat lies in the blistering archival live footage that it’s filled with. These stunning documents of the Stooges’ prime remind us that the film’s title doesn’t merely come from one of the band’s best songs; it’s also a warning, a demand, and a rallying cry.