Tuesday, March 1, 2011


(Lemmy Kilimister in Lemmy/ Damage Case Films and Distribution)
           There are supposed to be more films like Lemmy. That Greg Oliver and Wes Orshoski’s documentary about Motorhead frontman Lemmy Kimilister was never intended to be a cinematic exemplar doesn’t make it any less true. Lemmy is one of the more rugged, giddy and life-affirming films to come along recently, in no small part because its primary subject is a jack-and-coke swilling, tank riding, long-haired, growling metal-head. Yet its more important subject is not taking oneself too seriously, even when one really ought to. The film's narrative hinges on the belief that there is such a thing as  a walking cultural expression and a regular Joe rolled in to one. Which is to say, an unbelievable eccentric, like the rest of us.
         Motorhead was one of the first proper heavy metal bands, coming along in the mid-70’s around the same time as Black Sabbath and shortly after the emergence of punk rock. Kilimister, its founder, came from a fatherless background in England and Wales and was obsessed with classic Rock and Roll from an early age, immediately recognizing the Beatles as the pinnacle of the form. So how to jump from these average-enough roots to a band that epitomizes outrageousness, playing songs with titles like “Killed by Death” as loud and as fast as they deem necessary? By laughing. One of the first concessions Oliver and Orshoski’s film makes is to the utter hilarity of rock and roll in general and metal in particular. Watching Lemmy growl out lyrics about gambling and loose women, lug himself around in black clothes and a cowboy hat, and fail to apologize for a past of drug abuse and philandering is to laugh uncomfortably. Watching him joke around with fellow musicians, gruffly express his love for his son, and show a true English sense of humor-- as he stands beside his tank, in old-fashioned military garb-- is to observe an admirable goofball. Here is a man comfortable in the anti-hip hipness of his chosen profession. He is participating in a film that, with a casual yet specific eye, reveals something about the psychology of Rock music with a vigorousness that rivals This is Spinal Tap.

(Lemmy/Damage Case Films and Distribution)

            The shooting style Oliver and Orshoski adapted is equally vigorous. While interviews with fellow musicians—including Metallica’s James Hetfield and Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl—are shot in standard interview form, during the concert footage, guitars wheel through the air, and an audience of lanky, black-clad metalheads scream in our faces, as the camera whips from audience to musicians in an act of frantic engagement. There may not be anything revolutionary about the film’s structure, but there is an untapped well of in-your-face potential in the concert scenes. Even off the stage, one gets the sense of engaging in a performance. This comes across, in particular, as Lemmy shows off his vast blade collection, unsheathing one long dagger, putting it back, then whipping out something even sharper. Or as he mocks other bassist’s playing style before turning up his amp and strumming the bass in his demented guitarist style. The interactivity of the whole project eventually becomes intoxicating, though never overbearing. The film is, like most daring films, a physical experience.
             In one of the most riotous scenes, near the end of the film, Lemmy, restless and a diabetic, paces around his hotel room and pulls a lever on the wall that sets off a musical duck playing a crummy tune about being happy. He stares and stares at it, before walking out the door to play another show. Only after our laughter can we understand how he is simply a rock star, and just another guy who none of us will ever be. He can’t comprehend a cheesy jingle because he is a man who never knew his father, saw friends and lovers die of drug overdoses, and managed to pull through to his 60’s, but at some cost. His film, which, as some footage at the end credits suggests, he was not always comfortable with, transcends the idea of a fan’s tribute in the same way Lemmy himself transcends an outlandish, hard life. A film about a rock star can only get so far before resorting to nonsense about survival and individualism; Lemmy leads us to that point exactly, and ends. Yet all the way through, it plays by the basic notion that people are peculiar and fascinating; so much so, that judgements of good or bad are beside the point. What this same notion might do for Michael Moore’s diatribes and every other feeding-bag of irony and righteousness that passes for documentaries can only be imagined. What it does for Lemmy is create a genuinely felt portrait, amidst all the feedback.
(Lemmy/Damage Case Films and Distribution)