Born to Raise Hell

Greg Olliver and Wes Orshoski, Lemmy: 49% Motherfker, 51% Son of a Bitch, 2010, stills from a color film, 117 minutes.

NEAR THE BEGINNING of this amiable, humanizing documentary, an enthusiastic Motörhead fan tells the filmmakers, “If they drop an atomic bomb, the only things left will be cockroaches and Lemmy!” A justifiable assumption, to be sure, about this seemingly indestructible lion of prog, metal, punk, and, above all, rock ’n’ roll: Born Ian Fraser Kilmister in England on Christmas Eve, 1945, Lemmy has subsisted on Jack Daniel’s, Marlboro Reds, and the three S’s (speed, strippers, and slot machines) for most of his adult life. He’s one of the few celebrities walking today—Iggy Pop and Keith Richards are others—who could make a significant contribution to medicine by donating their bodies to science. As this film makes clear (despite its subtitle and its subject’s extensive collection of Nazi military paraphernalia), Lemmy is also a hell of a nice guy.

Raised by his mother and grandmother, largely in North Wales, Lemmy caught the rock ’n’ roll bug early, idolizing Little Richard and Elvis as a child, and seeing the nascent Beatles live before their debut LP. He joined the beat group the Rockin’ Vickers as a guitarist and enjoyed some regional success in Manchester, Liverpool, and environs. As the band descended to the cabaret circuit, Lemmy moved to London and became a roadie (and unofficial drug dealer) for the Jimi Hendrix Experience. He returned to performance as a bassist-vocalist with space-rock band Hawkwind, which—as Captain Sensible of the Damned, Peter Hook of Joy Division/New Order, and Jarvis Cocker of Pulp all note in the film—was the prog band that punks were allowed to like. Fired by his colleagues for being terminally late (and temporarily jailed in Canada on a drug charge), Lemmy struck out on his own, forming Motörhead (original name: Bastard) in 1975. Speaking to his involuntary dismissal from Hawkwind, Lemmy says, “It was ’70s drug snobbery. They were into organic drugs; I was into speed and organic drugs.”

In the film, the likes of Alice Cooper and Ozzy Osbourne credit Motörhead as being the first heavy metal band, and Lemmy’s music (and sartorial style) certainly set the template for the genre. Beyond the loud fast rules of the band’s sonic assault, Lemmy brought the following elements, among others, to the mead-hall table: skulls; mutton chops; biker aesthetics; growled, guttural vocals; gothic lettering; and unnecessary umlauts. For those who care about such things, members of the key bands associated with the thrash metal subgenre (Anthrax, Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth) all cite Lemmy as their primary inspiration. But what’s surprising about the documentary—and, for the uninitiated, Lemmy himself—is how little you have to care about such things to enjoy the film and its star. Lemmy’s influence cuts across several (often incompatible) genres and generations of musicians, and his understated charisma and good-hearted nature make similar films about bigger acts (the Rolling Stones, say) seem like contrived exercises in cinematic fellatio.

Lemmy is candid about the controversial aspects of his persona. Point-blanked by the filmmakers about whether his collection of Nazi uniforms, medals, daggers, etc., means that he himself is a Nazi, he makes clear that it’s about his interest in military history generally and German military aesthetics in particular: “It’s just how I like to dress. If the Israeli army had the best-looking uniforms, I’d wear those. But they don’t.” (To be fair, Lemmy avidly collects—and wears—military items from other cultures and periods, particularly from Eastern Europe and the American Civil War.) About his lifetime of substance abuse, he says, almost tearfully, “I don’t want to advertise that. I don’t want kids doing drugs because of me. I don’t want kids not doing drugs because of me either, but I’ve had too many friends die from that lifestyle for me to promote it.” Asked by a caller on a radio show how he explains his longevity, Lemmy answers, only half-jokingly, “Not dying—that’s the secret to survival.” At the end of the film, we see Lemmy sitting alone in a Moscow dressing room with a vintage slot machine. Over thirty years into Motörhead’s existence, he’s waiting to go onstage to greet a rapturous Russian crowd. “This is who I am . . . this is what I do,” he says, with a combination of pride and wistfulness. To which all but the most prudish viewer would reply, “Rock on.”

Lemmy premieres in Los Angeles at the Vista Theater on January 13; Portland, OR, at the Clinton Street Theater, January 14–21; and New York at the Cinema Village on January 21. For more details, click here.