The Power of Lemmy

The new movie about the lead singer of Motörhead, which premiered at South by Southwest, is funny, weirdly touching—and, well, it rocks.

Who is Lemmy? A heavy-metal god, the lead singer of Motörhead, the subject of widly entertaining new documentary Lemmy, sure—but who is he really? “He’s the baddest motherfucker in the world,” says Dave Grohl, of Foo Fighters. Lars Ulrich, the drummer from Metallica, adds, “There are no words. He’s Lemmy. It should be a verb.” A Motörhead fan interviewed for Lemmy outside a concert venue is perhaps most eloquent: “They could drop a nuclear bomb on this planet,” the guy says, “and Lemmy and the cockroaches are all that’s going to survive.”

Lemmy, which had its premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival last week, was made in the spirit of warm, fuzzy admiration. And it’s a feeling that’s apparently pretty widespread. When Lemmy (non-rock name: Ian Fraser Kilmister) and his Motörhead bandmates entered Austin’s Paramount Theatre the other night and took seats in a box at stage left, it felt like we had entered a groovier place and time. The crowd was chanting “Lemmy!” and, down in the lobby, a British guy was telling everybody what to do.

“There are no words,” says one rocker. “He’s Lemmy. It should be a verb.”

Lemmy takes another recent heavy-metal documentary, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (2004), as its model. Lemmy doesn’t care about explaining Lemmy’s music, and it isn’t a concert film. Directors Greg Olliver and Wes Orshoski figure that metal is such an impenetrable art form (for people like me, anyway) that any kind of personality you can ascribe to its practitioners will be enlightening and, intentionally or not, quite funny. We are tickled to learn that these guys are human beings.

So know this: Lemmy is 64 years old. He was born in Britain but now lives in Los Angeles. He spends nearly every waking hour when he’s not on tour at the Rainbow Bar and Grill on the Sunset Strip. Lemmy will be the one sitting in the corner, sipping Jack and Cokes and playing the bar’s trivia machine. (He’s also got a thing for slots.) Lemmy lives in a small apartment a block from Sunset for which he pays $900 per month. It is choked with Motörhead memorabilia—“I’ve seen museums with less shit in them,” he says—but Lemmy figures he’s not going to find anything cheaper.

Lemmy has never been married. He has a son, Paul, who is featured in the movie and who apparently met Lemmy when he was about 6 years old. Lemmy says he has fathered another son, but that the boy’s mother hasn’t had the heart to tell him that his dad is Lemmy. (I don’t think he’s kidding.) Lemmy collects, and occasionally wears, Nazi garb. When asked in the film if he’s a Nazi, he says, no, he’s had six African-American girlfriends. Up on the movie screen, Lemmy looks like a cowboy out of an old Western—shuffling slowly, and little crookedly, but somehow completely filling the frame.

The arc of Lemmy’s life will not surprise you. He rocked, he drank, he did drugs, he got arrested, and he occasionally fell out with groups like Hawkwind, which fired him. “I went home and screwed three of their old ladies,” Lemmy boasts. But Lemmy’s particular moral code is interesting. He claims a rock set is better than sex, because it lasts longer. He doesn’t care for Prince or The Darkness. Drug-wise, Lemmy believes in speed, but not cocaine or heroin. He wants you to know that he has bedded 1,000 women, not the 2,000 that has occasionally been reported. Most of all, Lemmy thinks, you must be in sync with your bandmates—by which he means, you must be doing the same kinds of drugs.

The movie, in other words, is a scream. And if it’s weighed down by anything, it’s one too many Motörhead songs, and a long section in which Lemmy plays at an arena show with Metallica. (Lemmy seems to sense that he’s the odd man out, despite the band’s genuflection.) Just like in Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, the rocker’s personality is so weirdly captivating, so odd and original, that his music seems like an afterthought. “This is who I am,” Lemmy says by way of summation. “This is what I do. This is what I’m supposed to do, right here.” Who is Lemmy? He’s the guy that got where he is, wherever that may be, by being himself.

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Bryan Curtis is a senior editor at The Daily Beast. His story about his grandfather’s softball career is in The Best American Sports Writing of 2009.