Speak Softly, Drive a German Tank: Lemmy Kilmister at His Documentary Film Opening
"If they dropped a nuclear bomb on this planet," says a fan in the new documentary film on Ian "Lemmy" Kilmister, the survivors would be "cockroaches, and Lemmy. That's it!"
As the film's Los Angeles premiere at the Vista Theatre kicks off to a chorus of raucous, rockist howls and applause, here's footage of the legendary Motörhead bassist playing video games, making french fries, shopping at Amoeba for a Beatles box set. We see an astounding amount of clutter in his $900-a-month apartment off the Sunset Strip, just around the corner from his longtime hangout, the Rainbow Bar & Grill.
Cheers erupt at almost every on-screen interview of Lemmy, and the list of celebrity interviewees is a cavalcade of ballsy, blowsy rock success: Jane's Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro, tattooist Kat von D, Joan Jett, guitarist Scott Ian of Anthrax, Mick Jones of the Clash, Peter Hook of Joy Division, actor Billy Bob Thornton.
"The best harmonies in the world are country girls," Lemmy offers in one of a string of casual moments of sagacity in this affectionate, reverent and oddly grounded of all possible rock documentaries.
"He's Lemmy — you take him or you fucking don't," declares one Ozzy Osbourne.
"More than any other rock musician, he is the baddest motherfucker in the world," agrees Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters.
The music of Motörhead, uglier than homemade soap and just as invigorating, blasts through the theater's sound system, channeled like wet lightning through Lemmy's bass. The power goes straight to your heart, strong enough to knock you down.
Vocally unique, Lemmy is his own person, with a voice as distinct as Tom Waits' gravelly huff or Burroughs' nasal macumba before him.
Born in Staffordshire and raised in Wales, Lemmy still boasts an almost impenetrable accent, even at age 65 and even after all these years in L.A. — so much so that the film requires occasional subtitles.
Lemmy, once a roadie for Jimi Hendrix, inspires a more sobering comment by way of Henry Rollins: "He told me, 'I remember before there was rock & roll' " — which is to say that most albums heard in Lemmy's childhood began with his mother's record collection, a rather neutered and easy-listening proposition indeed.
And now here's Lemmy out in Corona, driving a Jagdpanzer 38(t) Hetzer tank destroyer. When asked about accusations that he's a Nazi, upon the unveiling of his mammoth collection of captured Nazi daggers and World War II memorabilia that encrusts the walls and corners of his humble abode, he answers with sanguine calm, "I've had six black girlfriends — I'm the worst Nazi you ever met!"
Members of his old band, space-rock superstars Hawkwind, offer their regrets at his firing in 1975, the result of a magical misery tour that began when he was knocked out in an abandoned Detroit housing project while photographing the local color, and ended with his bust for cocaine possession.
"I don't want to advertise a lifestyle that killed a lot of my friends," he warns of the terrors of heroin, a drug that killed a sweetheart in his youth. As though shouldering this burden, for all his stardom he carries himself unobtrusively, loping and slouched like a living shadow.
He's asked if he has any regrets. He has none. The film ends with a moment worthy of Werner Herzog: Lemmy activates a wall-mounted fish that squirms and sings Bobby McFerrin's "Don't Worry, Be Happy," as he scowls.
As the lights come up in the theater, people remain transfixed, waiting for more, anything — until the crowd moves to the sidewalk outside and everyone gets ready to cash in their wristbands for the after party at the Rainbow. The stretch limousine at the curb waits for Lemmy, who saunters out in his usual sartorial gunslinger elegance amid a hail of flashbulbs. True to his reputation, he stays for anyone who comes up to him with mementos to be signed or to shake his hand, like a conscientious polar bear respected for his power and well-loved because of it.
That's the overwhelming impression "Lemmy" leaves, as a film — people genuinely love this bear of a man with the searing singing voice that cools to the timbre of folded steel when he inhabits a quiet moment.
As he drives off in the limo, you get a deeply encouraging feeling that rock godhood has not separated him from the rest of us — and that this legend, for all the history contained in the folds of his brain, just is.
The moral of Lemmy's story, reverberating here on the street as the crowd wanes, is that his has been a life truly lived.
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