I feel like the best music documentaries are the ones you can enjoy even if you know nothing about the musicians or type of music being profiled ... or better yet, don't actually like the music in question. For example, I loved the movie The Devil and Daniel Johnston, but have no interest in hearing any more of Johnston's music. Along the same lines, I went into Lemmy knowing very little about the musician's work, pretty much classifying it in a very generic Heavy Metal corner of the music world that I haven't paid much attention to. And yet, after 90-odd minutes of watching this profile of the driving force behind Motorhead, I was pleased to see Lemmy himself onstage for a Q&A and actually entertained the idea of going to a Motorhead concert later this week. (My eardrums are asking me to please go see a nice quiet movie instead.)
Lemmy is a straightforward profile of the musician born as Ian Fraser Kilmister, who has been playing bass for Motorhead since he founded it more than 30 years ago. The focus of the movie tends to be on the present day: We get a good look at the contents of Lemmy's LA apartment, meet his son Paul, hear his philosophies of life and watch him performing on tour. The movie also contains talking-head interviews from dozens of musicians, including present and former members of Lemmy's bands and musicians influenced by Lemmy. Henry Rollins is the most articulate, but we also are treated to appearances from Joan Jett, Ozzy Osbourne, Slash, Alice Cooper and David Grohl. Some brief biographical background also sneaks in, with fabulous photos of Lemmy as a young man in The Rockin' Vickers and later Hawkwind.
The one difficulty with Lemmy is that we don't encounter any milestones, conflicts, or challenges for the musician. He's edging up on 65, but is still popular. He may still cultivate several vices, but directors Wes Orshoski and Greg Olliver show us no drawbacks. No money problems, tricky relationships or nasty touring experiences ... very unlike many music documentaries or biopics I've seen, most recently Anvil: The Story of Anvil and Crazy Heart. I don't particularly want to know about Lemmy's dirty laundry, but after awhile you do start to want a little more complexity or difference in opinion, especially because the last 20 minutes or so tend to drag a little in pacing. On the other hand, it's refreshing to see such an apparently successful musician onscreen.
Lemmy ultimately comes across as a colorful, charismatic character as well as a survivor, and a fortunate one at that. His big performance moments come late in the film, with only snippets, odd covers, and earlier songs in the first half of the film. I did get a kick out of hearing students in his alma mater singing "Ace of Spades." The film has a strong and welcome dose of comedy, from Lemmy's one-liners to his stories and theories: his explanation of the difference between The Beatles and the Rolling Stones, his thoughts on what women want, and a touching scene where he talks about his early encounters with his son Paul, which then erupts into hilarious speculation about Paul's mom's sex life and why she named him Paul.
Lemmy tells us that you can age gracefully in the rock-and-roll world and still come out on top, with friends and supporters and a lot of fans. He seems quite content with his life, and I can see him planning to play concerts for as long as he's able. I have to say, I believe I've seen more middle fingers raised in this documentary than in all the films combined I've seen in the past 10 years, but it's almost a salute here, a cheerful rebelliousness. Fans and newcomers to Motorhead can both enjoy this tribute to a musician who just won't quit.