1:55pm

Fri January 14, 2011
Movie Reviews

'Lemmy': The Sweet Life Of A Heavy-Metal Hero

Hardly anyone has an unkind word to say about Lemmy Kilmister. More common, in Greg Olliver and Wes Orshoski's lovingly hero-worshipping documentary about this reluctant godfather of heavy metal -- not much of a fan of labels, the man himself would insist he just plays rock 'n' roll -- is the sight of an avalanche of diverse musicians, from punks to metal heads to Britpoppers to Peter Hook of synthpop legends New Order, all reaching for superlative after superlative about the man.

His fans tend to be even more effusive, summing him up simply as "God" or "the modern Jesus." One such acolyte maintains that Lemmy would be the only person left standing with the cockroaches after a nuclear blast.

A single story of harsh sentiments does arise during the course of the film. A feud broke out between Lemmy and British band The Darkness after he called them a "novelty act." The band responded by banning him from its shows. But a surreptitious bar meeting, arranged and here recounted by Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl, ends with pictures of Lemmy and Darkness singer Justin Hawkins palling drunkenly around. That ended the feud, though Lemmy didn't back down from his typically blunt assessment of Hawkins' act: "You didn't change my opinion one bit," he tells Grohl.

It's a theme that the filmmakers come back to repeatedly throughout the film -- the slightly incongruous notion that this fierce, outspoken eminence is also a grounded, genuine individual, and one it's impossible not to like once you've spent some time with him. Members of his former band, the '70s space-rock outfit Hawkwind, kicked him out abruptly during a Canadian tour after his drug use made him unreliable.

But even they couldn't quit him completely. They talk about him fondly in interview clips, and even ended up serving as an opening act for Motorhead, the band he founded in 1975 and continues to tour and record with relentlessly.

Lemmy is an undeniably intimidating presence. Rockabilly guitarist Reverend Horton Heat describes him as "Black Bart meets Mad Max," with his long black hair and muttonchops. His fashion sense alternates between apocalyptic cowboy biker and Nazi SS officer -- the latter a controversial fascination that the filmmakers make sure to address directly. But he is also affable, approachable and just as comfortable sitting quietly and playing the video trivia machine at a local bar as he is pounding punishing decibels into the craniums of thousands of screaming fans.

This is, on the one hand, a fairly traditional rockumentary, charting the Spinal Tap-like course of Lemmy's career -- from his Beatles-contemporary days in the '60s British pop group The Rockin' Vickers through the heavy-metal thunder of Motorhead -- and stuffed with the requisite interviews and live concert footage. But Lemmy gives the filmmakers enough time and enough candid access to create a profile of the man that goes deeper than just the sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll -- even though in Lemmy's case, there's enough of a surplus of all three to power multiple documentaries.

Lemmy's exterior may seem as gruff and distorted as his trademark bass tone. But as he quietly guides the filmmakers on a tour of his surprisingly tiny L.A. apartment, stuffed with enough pop culture and historical memorabilia to merit an episode of Hoarders, he declares the most precious thing in the place to be his son, who is on hand for that day's filming, and a sweet, sentimental side emerges. Lemmy may be rock's biggest badass -- as the film's full title reminds us, people say he's "49 percent Motherf**ker, 51 Percent Son of a Bitch" -- but as seen here, he's all heart. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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