Arts Desk

Lemmy, the Movie: 49% Motherfucker, 51% Son of a Bitch

In 1994’s metal-head romp Airheads—in which the decidedly un-metal trio of Adam Sandler, Steve Buscemi, and Brendan Fraser hijack a local radio station to promote their band— there's a memorable exchange with a suit from Capitol Records, played by Harold Ramis.  Asked to name the victor of a wrestling match between Lemmy and God, Buscemi reveals it's a trick question—since Lemmy is God, a belief shared by generations of young men, many of whom are interviewed in Lemmy, Greg Olliver and Wes Orshoski’s recently released documentary about Ian Fraser "Lemmy" Kilmister of Motörhead. “The man’s a modern day Jesus Christ,” one young British fan gushes.

For the uninitiated, the gospel according to Motörhead reads something like this: a few choice passages in the late '70s and early '80s—notably Overkill and Ace of Spadesfollowed by decades of endless repetition. Motörhead's music, described by Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker as like “getting stuck in a sandstorm,” is identified throughout the film as the missing link between '50s rock & roll, metal, and punk.  True enough. However, the band’s biggest asset seems to be Kilmister’s adamant refusal to shift gears, preaching to the converted by producing a nearly evolution-proof body of work over 30-plus years. Lemmy's fierce individualism has become the stuff of rock legend, a reputation fervently (and sometimes embarrassingly) asserted by everyone from Dave Grohl to members of Metallica, whose Lars Ulrich suggests that "Lemmy" be used henceforth as a verb. “There’s not a fake bone in Lemmy’s body,” proclaims one of Lemmy's bandmates.

The primacy of authenticity is central to Olliver and Orshoski’s muddled thesis, a notion—popular as it may be—the film doesn't so much explore as it categorically accepts as fact, never demonstrating what exactly makes Kilmister worthy of such adulation. A lifetime rocker—“I’m not qualified to do anything else," he offers—the Lemmy captured in Lemmy is the result of three years of filming which, if the documentary is to believed, involved a great deal of slot machines, discussions about The Beatles, and the collection of ephemera for his cluttered, rent-controlled apartment near the Sunset Strip. If Lemmy wasn’t rocking, chances are his unhygienic home would be seized by the state.

The directors' unconditional adulation reflects the passion of thousands who show up whenever Motörhead play their local amphitheater or club. Unlike the claustrophobic psychodrama of Some Kind of Monster or I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, Lemmy is a vehicle for fans to reiterate the two central tenants of the cult of Kilmister: Lemmy is awesome and people who don’t recognize Lemmy's awesomeness are stupid. Like the late Joey Ramone, Kilmister exists in a kind of purgatory, a perennially well-known musician who never made it to the Top of the Pops, but who hardly toiled in obscurity. That the Ramones and Motörhead didn't go multi-platinum is a mystery easily solved by diminishing returns and a refusal to break from type that's mistakenly equated with integrity. Even still, it's unclear why Lemmy goes to such great lengths—nearly two hours' worth—to defend the legacy of such a widely admired figure.

More than the actual music, the beauty of Lemmy’s myth—an imposing, barrel-chested figure in tight black jeans and a low-hung cowboy hat—is one of the musical desperado, a lifer whose cavalier attitude toward drugs and alcohol is indeed legendary. Dave Navarro of Jane’s Addiction recalls, “The first time I ever met the guy, he proceeds to offer me crystal meth.” When these freewheeling behaviors trickle into other aspects of his life, it lacks the same amusing bravado. Describing an instance in which Lemmy swapped women with his son, his progeny's queasy smile says it all.

Lemmy's quintessential Spinal Tap moment comes when Kilmister, dressed in full German military regalia, unironically states that he’s couldn't possibly be a Nazi sympathizer because of his numerous black girlfriends; he simply enjoys the Third Reich’s sartorial flair and attention to detail, as demonstrated by his swastika-draped bedroom. Um, sure. The film isn’t equipped to deal with the thornier aspects of its subject, be them World War II obsessions or Kilmister’s hard-knock childhood, which shoehorned into the last 15 minutes of a 110-plus-minute movie is literally an afterthought. Did the filmmakers' obvious affection blind them to Kilmister's myriad inconsistencies, or was their intent to simply add another chapter to his over-sized reputation? Or perhaps like Motörhead's music—blunt,  a bit simplistic and enjoyable in small doses—there isn’t all that much to get. You win some, lose some…it’s all the same.

Mole Rating: 2 out of 5 moles.

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  • hemisphire

    You skipped the great scenes with his son! I've never been a big fan (don't own any of the music), but I thought it was a fun watch.

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  • Nicko

    Fair comments, Matt.

    Lemmy is indeed a one-trick pony. He hasn't grown out of primitive adolescent rebellion including that transient infatuation with Nazi regalia that other rock stars briefly dabbled in so long ago.

    On the other hand it is a lot of fun to experience Motörhead live. Lemmy has a certain charisma in his own understated cut-the-crap way that is makes him a good interviewee on the right turf.

    For heavy rock fans the movie is a must. For others, see if the trailer grabs you.

  • MIke

    Lemmy is a measuring stick for any young musician growing up in our plastic, disposable american idol society.