The full title of the new documentary on Lemmy Kilmister, leader of long-surviving metal band Motorhead, is “Lemmy: 49% Motherf***ker, 51% Son of a Bitch,” but as viewers will see for themselves, the name is a bit of a misnomer. Lemmy is 100% softie.
He tears up ever so slightly when he talks about losing his girlfriend to a heroin overdose in her teens. He looks a little weepy when asked, in the middle of his overwhelmingly memorabilia-stuffed apartment, what the most precious item is, as he answers “my son,” who is sitting on the sofa beside him. Mind you, they didn’t meet until the boy was six, allegedly in the midst of a drug deal. And with a bit of unconvincing nonchalance, Lemmy adds, “I have another one, but I’ve never met him, so he doesn’t count.” Okay, make that 93% softie.
Lemmy is one of rock’s great characters and Motorhead one of the pioneers of heavy metal. While Motorhead has never had anything remotely resembling a hit song in the U.S, you’d be hard pressed to find a metal band, whether it’s Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax or dozens of others, that doesn’t owe a tremendous debt to Motorhead. If Spinal Tap’s amps went to 11, Motorhead’s go to 17.
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An impressive parade of talking heads — Dave Grohl, Ozzy Osbourne, Henry Rollins, the members of Metallica, Slash, Billy Bob Thornton, Alice Cooper, Jarvis Cocker, and many more— all tell of their adoration for the heavy metal icon and share a story or two. (Scott Ian’s tale about Lemmy in his Daisy Dukes is worth the price of a ticket alone).
“The first time I met him, he offers my crystal meth,” recounts Jane’s Addictions’ Dave Navarro. Indeed, the 64-year old Lemmy makes Keith Richards look like a lightweight. In addition to the ever-present Jack Daniels, there’s an array of drugs readily available for consumption (these days tablets for diabetes and high blood pressure are included in the mix).
Although he does have his limits. He hates heroin. Perhaps due to his girlfriend’s death all those years ago. “Promise me you won’t do coke,” his son Paul recalls Lemmy beseeching him, before adding, “Just do speed, it’s much better for you.” Father of the year, he ain’t, but it’s a relationship that works in its own sweetly dysfunctional way, if you consider swapping sex partners with your son part of a thriving family dynamic.
While directors Wes Orshoski* and Greg Olliver have clearly made a labor of love, they do not attempt to gloss over Lemmy’s drug use, his gambling affection, his functional alcoholism and his tremendous fondness for Nazi memorabilia. His love for all things Third Reich (and WWI and WWII in general) runs so deep that the filmmakers ask him what would he say to anyone watching who questions if he’s a Nazi. With a look of incredulity that anyone could confuse his love of history for being a card-carrying Hitler youth, he answers by saying, “I’ve had six black girlfriends.” Well, okay then.
There are times that it seems as the never-married Lemmy leads a very lonely life, but as the film goes on, it becomes clear that Lemmy is living the exact life he wants to—and how many of us can say that? His apartment, small and rundown as it may be, meets his basic needs: it’s cheap and it’s within walking distance of Sunset Strip Club, the Rainbow, his home away from home. His relative lack of wealth is a source of pride and a sign that he’s never, ever sold out.
It isn’t until the last quarter of the film that we get to see much of Lemmy on stage. Though his voice is nowhere nearly as potent as it used to be (the footage of him in early ‘70s Motorhead’s predecessor, Hawkwind, reveals a much more flexible-voiced performer), he’s still a force on stage with his downturned microphone, flowing black hair, and sturdily planted feet, he fiercely attacks his bass. Still, in some ways, we never understand his process or how he creates: there are brief glimpses of him writing, but no extended segments are devoted to his artistry.
Instead of hearing Lemmy talk about what being on stage means to him (the answer appears to be “everything”) or how grateful he is to his fans, we’re left to somewhat figure that out on our own by the context the music plays in his life. But you’ve got to hand it to a man who long ago quit being fazed (or titillated) at signing his name on a woman’s chest, only to have her run to have his autograph immortalized as a tattoo.
Whether it was a licensing issue or a creative decision, only a handful of Motorhead songs are heard start to finish, most effectively are a blistering “Damage Case,” which Lemmy performs with Metallica at one of their concerts, and a corrosive “Ace of Spades,” with the current Motorhead line-up on tour.
At two hours, the movie could use a little trimming. Plus, the story is told in a somewhat scattered order, as opposed to chronologically. The sound quality varies greatly throughout the film and then there’s the issue of deciphering Lemmy’s sludgy British accent. At times, the film smartly uses subtitles he is so hard to understand, but the whole movie could use them. However, these are small quibbles for a film that if you’re a longtime Lemmy fan, makes you feel great about having placed your faith in his hands. If you’re a Motorhead neophyte, you’ll come away with a a great appreciation for his devotion and be deeply entertained by the man, if not the music.
“Lemmy” opens in Los Angeles and New York on Friday (Jan. 21) and in various cities around the country over the next few weeks. For a list of theaters, go to www.lemmymovie.com.
*In the interest of full disclosure, Orshoski and I worked together at Billboard.