A review of “Lemmy”, the documentary about Motorhead’s iconic founder

You don’t have to be a Motorhead fan to enjoy Lemmy.

But it sure couldn’t hurt.

Lemmy is about Lemmy Kilmister, who founded the early metal band Motorhead in 1975 and has been synonymous with the band ever since. (Lemmy consistently says Motorhead just plays rock & roll and cites classic American rockers among his influences.) For the most part Lemmy comes across as an engaging, unpretentious, and even warm person, despite the fame, the military iconography with which he surrounds himself, and the cultivated severity of his appearance.

I caught Lemmy this week at the 8th annual Psychotronic Film Festival at Muse Arts Warehouse here in Savannah. The film had its American premiere last March at the South by Southwest Film Festival.

Perhaps the most impressive element of Lemmy is the relentless (I mean that in a good way) inclusion of clips of interviews by those who consider Lemmy not only a musical influence but a cultural revolutionary: Ozzie Osborne, Joan Jett, Slash, Lars Frederiksen of Rancid, James Hetfield of Metallica, guitarist Dave Navarro of Jane’s Addiction, Ice-T, Henry Rollins, and on and on. One has to admire the legwork and perseverance of the filmmakers to get so many big names to be interviewed — the settings are varied, the excerpts concise, the anecdotes sharp, the sound good, the tattoos stunning.

There’s some good concert footage too, but the film could have used more.

At almost two hours, Lemmy feels long. Since the documentary does not unfold in any sort of chronological order (nor should it necessarily), the viewer doesn’t have any sense of where the film will go from one moment to the next. That works really well at times, like in the sudden flashback to Lemmy’s pre-Motorhead days with the British band Hawkwind. Apparently, the falling out came when Lemmy, an inveterate abuser of stimulants while the rest of the band preferred psychedelics, was arrested at the Canadian border.

And the unpredictable structure makes the sudden appearance of the talking heads all the more effective.

But my heart sank a bit when, deep into the film and at a point where it was beginning to feel too long, we suddenly flashed all the way back to Lemmy’s childhood. How many more hours was this going to go?

Perhaps the biggest problem with the film, in addition to some scenes that could be cut in their entirety such as a pointless and poorly recorded conversation with Billy Bob Thornton, is that we get too much Lemmy. I liked several of the vignettes of Lemmy in his cluttered apartment, but I could have done without some of the repetitive clips of Lemmy walking outside, walking on the sidewalk, getting into his limo, riding in his limo, etc., etc. It seems at some moments that the filmmakers were just a little too much in awe of their subject.

Lemmy’s understated mumble can also be hard to understand. The filmmakers were obviously aware of this difficulty as occasionally they added subtitles. I needed a lot more of those.

While there are some obvious spots where the film could have been trimmed, there are other aspects that begged for more detail, like the compelling interviews with the other members of Hawkwind, whose faces are as battle-scarred as the 60-something Lemmy’s. I guess the filmmakers went as far as they could under the circumstances, but I would love to have seen Lemmy pressed a bit more about his fascination with military history and his roomful of Nazi memorabilia. Hard to give someone a free pass on that.

Lemmy is an impressive film on many levels, and I’m guessing that — a few obvious faults aside — it’s going to hold up well over time. The energy and urgency and vibrancy of metal finds new young fans all the time, and they’re going to dig themselves eventually back to Motorhead and Lemmy.

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