Say it with the right emphasis and the name Lemmy Kilmister sounds like what an enraged, English-deficient thug would snort before choking someone with his hairy-knuckled hands. Say it any other way and you've got the driving force behind the heavy metal outfit Motörhead. Even by rock standards, Lemmy Kilmister is an original. He's a music legend in circles traditionally associated with the wrong side of the tracks. Dressed in black and soaked in whiskey, the 65 year old bassist is probably still alive because the devil is too afraid to kill him. Yet directors Greg Olliver and Wes Orshoski's respectful and indulgent documentary manages to strip almost all cliché from the gruff-voiced Kilmister and his death defying rock and roll life. Lemmy is, at day's end, just your average military historian, Beatles fanatic and slot machine junkie who has spent over 35 years fronting one of rock's most influential bands. It's doubtful the film will expand much beyond devotees of Motörhead's grungy, lightning paced and aggressive music. DVD and midnight screenings are its best bet.
One look at Lemmy, with his biker beard, leather jacket, custom-made boots and album cover sneer, and you think you've got him pegged. You'd be half right. The other half is what makes Olliver and Orshoski's film surprising and compelling. Living in a $900 a month apartment off the Sunset Strip because it affords easy access to his beloved Rainbow Room, Lemmy spends his time playing gigs, pursuing his sometimes controversial hobbies and enjoying his celebrated status within the rock community. He is revered by many of today's guitar heroes, including Dave Grohl, Slash and Metallica's James Hetfield, all of whom are interviewed. Lemmy's influences are unexpected and serve to soften our initial, surface-based opinion of him. A former roadie (and procurer of acid) for Jimi Hendrix, the Staffordshire-born guitarist still worships Little Richard. Lemmy saw the Beatles perform live before they recorded their first record and his continued love for the Fab Four leads to a record store owner gifting Lemmy her personal copy of the recently released Beatles Mono Box Set. Indeed, Lemmy's life and career span rock itself. Olliver and Orshoski take us back to the 1960s and Kilmister's first group, the Rockin' Vickers. In the early '70s, he joined Hawkwind, a combination of straight ahead rock and prog rock from which he was fired for excessive drug use. In 1975, he formed Motörhead, partially as a reaction to disco. The band combined heavy guitars, pounding rhythms and a punk sensibility to create a sound that attracted an outsider crowd drawn to the possibility of irreversible deafness. Even though Black Sabbath preceded Motörhead in formation and major chart success, Sabbath's lead mumbler Ozzy Osbourne credits Motörhead with being the first real heavy metal band.
Unlike Gene Simmons from Kiss, whose outrageous persona hides a rather shrewd businessman, Kilmister doesn't seem to be affecting poses or playing to fan expectations. Because their subject is such a genuinely outsized figure, Olliver and Orshoski's camera easily keeps our eye engaged, save for the occasional cliché-indulging shot of Lemmy strutting down corridors. His none-too-impressive apartment is crammed with accumulated rock memorabilia, including gold records and fan-made figurines. A longtime World War II buff, Lemmy has collected an uncomfortable array of Nazi artifacts like uniforms and swords. The singer has long denied rumors that he harbors any Nazi sympathies, but Olliver and Orshoski allow him to brush off the accusation with a quick joke. If they sometimes let him off the hook too easily, that generosity also has its advantages. There are a number of lengthy scenes presented in one take, including an entire song he performed live with Metallica during an arena show. The most revelatory is the interview with his son, Paul Inder (another son is estranged and dismissed as a "computer programmer"). What begins as a straight scene slowly morphs into an unprompted, intimate and affecting chat between father and son that unfolds for several uninterrupted minutes.
Moments like these help answer the central question of any such documentary: does the film get to the bottom of its subject? Is there enough access and insight for the viewer to understand who the person is and how they got that way? The answer here is an almost unreserved yes, even if its non-judgmental approach can feel like fawning as much as objectivity. The directors don't shy away from Lemmy's troublesome professional and personal relationships (including the heroin-related death of a girlfriend that swore him off cocaine) nor do they use them to court pity or inflate his street cred. For the most part, Olliver and Orshoski are smart enough to allow Lemmy's unique personality to come to them, as opposed to pushing a case for it. Accolades from peers can sound too worshipful, but there's no doubt that Lemmy's look, longevity and influence justify the heavy metal pedestal upon which he's been placed.
Distributor: Damage Case Films
Directors/Producers: Greg Olliver and Wes Orshoski
Running time: 117 min
Release date: January 21 ltd.