Documentary ‘Lemmy’ Sounds Off On Influential Rocker

Jan 31, 2011

Documentary ‘Lemmy’ Sounds Off On Influential Rocker

-Scott McLennan, Boston Globe

Lemmy Kilmister is to rock ’n’ roll what Hunter S. Thompson was to journalism; both men are quintessential outsiders yet are held up as icons, adored by many and hazardously emulated by more than a few.

Kilmister, who leads the band Motorhead, is even more of an outlier than Thompson. The bassist and singer’s reach into pop culture via heavy music is narrower than that of the author’s — your local librarian can probably tell you at least a little something about “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,’’ but she’ll likely falter if you ask about the man behind the Motorhead signature song “Ace of Spades.’’

The documentary “Lemmy’’ (screening Friday at Arlington’s Regent Theatre) is a step toward correcting that situation. Greg Olliver and Wes Orshoski spent three years piecing together Kilmister’s tale, filming interviews with him in the rent-controlled hovel he inhabits in Los Angeles, traveling to his native England to connect with his early musical experiences, and lining up numerous musicians to articulate how he has influenced so much of the music that has become popular over the past 30 years even as he remains in the shadows.

The filmmakers acknowledge that Kilmister, now 65, had final say on the cut, but they still manage to render a portrait that seems honest and multifaceted. For as much adulation as “Lemmy’’ stirs up, it also lays bare his fascination with Nazi military paraphernalia; his copious consumption of booze, smokes, and speed; and his quirks, like the addictions to trivia video games and slot machines.

“Lemmy is not normal, you can’t judge him on a normal scale,’’ Orshoski said. “This isn’t a 9-to-5, 2.5 children kind of guy.’’

And that’s what attracted Orshoski, a former reporter for Billboard magazine, and Olliver, a struggling filmmaker, to the subject of their first joint venture.

Olliver and Orshoski met through their involvement in a never-released documentary about reggae artist Burning Spear. One night in 2006, the two sat in a pub in Ireland intent on creating something of their own so long as they could find the right subject. Orshoski was hot on Kilmister as he had recently done a Billboard piece about the musician’s rockabilly project, the Head Cat, and realized how much more there was to the man than the brutal image put forth by Motorhead.

Olliver was not immediately on the same page as his partner.

“I didn’t know Motorhead music. I was afraid of Motorhead music,’’ Olliver said.

But that unfamiliarity worked to the filmmakers’ advantage as it forced them to develop Kilmister’s character on screen. Olliver became a Motorhead fan, but proof that he’d accomplished what he set out to came when his parents — who are not Motorhead fans — saw the film. “They loved the movie and they love Lemmy,’’ he said.

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As portrayed in the film, Kilmister latched onto rock ’n’ roll as his vehicle to break from his working-class surroundings. He was inspired by seeing the Beatles during their Cavern Club residency, and how they opened a door into a new cultural era that welcomed a new soundtrack. Before the filmmakers hit you with the hot blast of Motorhead’s music, they let Kilmister provide a tutorial on the importance of Little Richard, Elvis, and Jerry Lee Lewis. His exposition on why the Beatles were actually tougher than the Rolling Stones again positions Kilmister as an interesting musical thinker.

Kilmister stripped his own rock to a raw, rough sound made pulverizing in the hands of Motorhead, a band that plays with a speed and volume that fans claim leaves them hard of hearing for days after a concert (these same fans also like to proclaim ‘Lemmy is God,’ a phrase that Kilmister shot down as a potential title for the documentary).

After detailing Kilmister’s own outlaw style and sound, the documentary demonstrates their influence. Ozzy Osbourne praises Kilmister’s songwriting genius for penning the Ozman’s hit “Mama, I’m Coming Home.’’ Foo Fighter Dave Grohl pronounces Kilmister the coolest of the cool and truest of the true, belittling Keith Richards in the process. Henry Rollins explains how Motorhead appealed to the punk rockers even as heavy metal fans were claiming the band as their own. Members of Metallica rattle off all they have lifted from Kilmister over the years. There are even talks with members of Hawkwind, the pioneering psychedelic band that famously booted him. Overall, the story is how one guy did exactly what he wanted to, and has been able to get away with it.

Kilmister’s explanation for all this, as revealed during a segment filmed while he was taking calls on a radio show: “I’m not qualified to do anything else.’’

The filmmakers smoothed Kilmister’s roughness by introducing us to his adult son Paul Inder. Olliver said the documentary wasn’t in pursuit of Kilmister’s family life, but that it literally came knocking on the door.

“We had Lemmy in the apartment all set for interviews and somebody called to come over. I was annoyed, because I thought we’d have some good alone time with Lemmy and this was going to kill the vibe,’’ Olliver recalled. “I had no idea it was his son coming over.’’

Olliver calls what transpired “pure gold.’’

When asked to identify his most cherished possession in his crammed quarters, Kilmister smacks a beefy hand down on Inder’s leg and says, “My son.’’

Inder told the filmmakers in a subsequent interview that his father’s affectionate response shocked him.

Olliver and Orshoski premiered the movie at last year’s South by Southwest music conference and have independently booked showings around the country.

On Feb 15, “Lemmy’’ will arrive on DVD and Blu-ray with an additional four hours of footage. Kilmister himself will be in Boston performing with Motorhead on March 1 at the House of Blues.

“After the LA screening, I got a text from (Guns N’ Roses bassist) Duff McKagan saying the film was very inspiring,’’ Orshoski said. “Guns N’ Roses changed my life. To get a text from one of those guys saying that I did something inspiring was profoundly heavy.’’

As are most things Lemmy.