For music fans attending the London Film Festival, there was a bountiful selection of documentaries, whether you liked your ageing rockers (the modest, charming Ballad Of Mott The Hoople), britpop nostalgics (the selective, reverential Upside Down: The Creation Records Story) or indie aesthetes (the chaotic, downright odd Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt And The Magnetic Fields).
However, head and shoulders above these stood Lemmy, the compelling character study from co-directors Greg Olliver and Wes Orshoski, which came across as fiercely distinctive, keenly insightful and wildly entertaining.
Compiled from footage shot over a number of years, Orshoski and Olliver piece together the Motorhead frontman’s life from the ground up. One of the images that resounds throughout the whole picture is also one of its earliest: that of Lemmy Kilmister, the larger-than-life rock and roll survivor, sitting on his arse in his outrageously cluttered Los Angeles apartment playing videogames.
Later, he walks around the corner to his local boozer, which just happens to be fabled nightspot the Rainbow Bar & Grill, second home to many West Coast rockers over the years, and takes up his regular spot, right next to the quiz machine.
Over its two hour runtime, Lemmy treads this line between reality and mythology. We see its subject both in candid footage and through the eyes of his family, friends and fans. Segments are dedicated to his formative years in North Wales, and his early career in beat group The Rockin’ Vickers and the space rock band Hawkwind, but it doesn’t get bogged down in biography and history, favouring an eclectic blend of everything documentaries can do.
Kilmister is a fascinating character, a self-deprecating eccentric who looks like a leather-clad barbarian, but sports a gently deadpan, dry wit and a unerringly straightforward manner. When asked about his fondness for Nazi artefacts, and whether this interest translates as sympathy or support, he responds that, if the Israeli army had the best uniforms, he’d collect them instead.
Likewise, despite being an icon for the live fast rock star lifestyle (and curiously maintaining both his integrity and faculties better than contemporaries such as Ozzy Osbourne), he is quick to avoid becoming a poster child, saying, “I wouldn’t want to advertise a lifestyle that killed a lot of my friends.”
Indeed, Orshoski and Olliver are intelligent enough to engage with these more serious aspects of Lemmy’s cartoonish character, with time also given over to his suffering from diabetes and his awkward, yet loving relationship with his grown son, Paul. But their obvious passion for his music gives the film a certain infectious enthusiasm and a genuine energy during the footage of live shows, recording sessions and informal jams with the likes of Metallica, Dave Grohl, The Damned and Lemmy’s rockabilly side project, The Head Cat.
And while the film delights in bringing insight into the man’s more private moments, it successfully reveals him to also be tremendously popular, both as an influence and a friend, with interviews from various musicians from in and outside of the metal community, such as Grohl, Steve Vai, Peter Hook and Ice-T (who meticulously enunciates his way through the lyrics for Ace Of Spades). Pick of the bunch is the ever-effusive Henry Rollins, who looks aghast as he recalls Lemmy once mentioning that he lived in a time before rock and roll.
It is a terrific film, and should take pride of place next to other music documentaries like Anvil! The Story Of Anvil, Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey and Some Kind Of Monster. Like those films, it looks at the world of heavy metal as a community of musicians, fans and roadies all united by a shared passion, and assesses its subject with intelligence, warmth and familiarity. And, on top of that, it is a powerful portrait of one of the 20th century’s most enduring musical icons.
Lemmy is receiving a limited UK theatrical release in December, before a beefed up DVD and Blu-ray set in January.
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