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As the new documentary Lemmy: 49% Motherfucker, 51% Son of a Bitch explains, before there was rock & roll, there was Lemmy — and after a nuclear holocaust, there will probably only be Lemmy. The Welsh singer-bassist was born Ian Fraser Kilmister in 1945. Inspired by Elvis, Lemmy crossed paths with the Beatles, became a mop top, joined the hippie space-rock band Hawkwind, worked as a roadie for Jimi Hendrix and founded Motörhead. Respected by punks and metalheads alike, the latter band, like AC/DC, is practically its own genre.
But Motörhead is the smallest part of the flick (although it's featured at length in copious bonus footage on the Blu-ray and DVD editions). Instead, the documentary concentrates on Lemmy's life as a ranked-amateur World War II historian-collector who has an ongoing fondness for '50s rock & roll. The film features gushing testimony from hard-rock and heavy-metal stars, including members of Metallica and Ozzy Osbourne. (Lemmy cowrote Ozzy's "Mama, I'm Coming Home.") But Lemmy transcends genre: Fans and friends such as Billy Bob Thornton, Kat Von D, Joan Jett and New Order's Peter Hook discuss the man, the myth and the legend. By the time Dave Grohl calls Lemmy "the baddest motherfucker in the world," it's clear the Foo Fighters frontman isn't just an overexcited fanboy.
Lemmy codirectors/producers Greg Olliver and Wes Orshoski shot the movie from 2007 to 2009. The pair captured moments both deafening and tender in the surprisingly accessible (and thoroughly detailed) look at one of the great underground rock icons. In advance of Motörhead's show at Pop's this weekend, Olliver and Orshoski chatted about the documentary.
RFT: The movie isn't just a look at some heavy-metal dude.
Greg Olliver: Our goal was to make a film our parents could watch. Lemmy's such a character — regardless of music, people should be able to relate to him as a unique, compelling human being.
I read that Lemmy had final approval of the content. Is he a partner in the film?
Wes Orshoski: Yes. He definitely is. It was weird, because we went to his apartment before the world premiere. I was having a full-on panic attack, thinking that he was going to make us take out the good, juicy stuff. And the only thing he complained about was the fact that we took out the sax solo in the song at the end of the movie. It's a previously unreleased solo song called "Don't Matter to Me." He wanted us to put that and a couple quotes back in, but he didn't ask us to cut anything.
How did you line up all the people you talk to?
Orshoski: I have a background in music journalism, so I have a lot of contacts. Lemmy has their numbers, too. There was some scheduling [conflicts], but pretty much everyone said yes right away.
There's an interview where the other Motörhead guys complain they aren't in the movie much.
Olliver: They keep forgetting that the movie's called Lemmy.
Orshoski: Those guys are a huge part of Lemmy's life, but they're not all of Lemmy's life. We're trying to show all 360 degrees.
You do cover Motörhead more in the extras, don't you?
Olliver: Yeah. Lemmy said in Billboard, "The extras are as good as the movie." There are features on [Motörhead guitarist and drummer] Phil Campbell and Mikkey Dee. There's live Motörhead, two songs with Metallica, a featurette about the set Metallica played at Lemmy's 50th birthday — all kinds of stuff. The Blu-ray will have four and a half hours of bonus [material].
Watching the movie, you get the sense Lemmy's not particularly impressed with himself.
Orshoski: He's not your typical rock-star asshole. He's not trying to remind everybody all the time who he is. He's just a normal guy. Except for maybe when a hot girl is present. That's when the peacock feathers come out a little. God forbid you try to move in on a girl; that's definitely a no-no, we've heard.
Does he really drink that much? That's not just selective editing?
Olliver: That's all Lemmy drinks: Jack and Coke. There was one strange day where he had a Gatorade.
One of you lost some hearing while filming?
Olliver: What? I have a slight case of tinnitus, this [ongoing] ringing in my ears now. I lost hearing during the film, for sure.
Is Lemmy stone-cold deaf?
Olliver: No, not at all. None of those guys in the band are wearing any hearing protection onstage. Lemmy never asks you to repeat yourself. It's amazing.
Is he just superhuman?
Orshoski: One of my favorite moments is when Ozzy Osbourne, the singer of "Iron Man," says Lemmy must be made out of iron. People have different constitutions, you know? Greg and I joke that the alcohol must have pickled him.
What's it like being in that apartment? [Lemmy lives in a small apartment in LA that's packed with assorted memorabilia from a Grammy award to Nazi daggers — as Lemmy says in the film, "I've seen museums with less shit in 'em."]
Orshoski: It's nerve-racking. I always worry I'm going to knock over shit.
Olliver: There's clusters of hoarding going on there. The tidy areas are where the collectibles are. He pristinely mounts things on the wall, daggers and Zippo lighters in cases. The rest, stuff is piled. It's a fun place.
When you shot the interview with Lemmy and his son, did you have that little light go off in your head like, "This is the good stuff!"? Could you feel that moment in the room?
Olliver: Oh, yeah. That scene was funny: We finally had Lemmy's attention for a while, and he seemed to be into the conversation we were having. Then the buzzer rang; his son came over. He was early. I was irritated that it was going to mess up the vibe we had. We were filming Lemmy, and I had no idea he was going to say his son was the most valuable thing in the room. I had to pan over quickly. It was a total surprise.
What do you think it's like in the mind of Lemmy?
Olliver: I don't know. That's what we try to get at in our film. It remains somewhat of a mystery.
Orshoski: It's like any other man's mind: He's thinking about girls. He's thinking about fun.
Does anybody not call him "Lemmy"?
Orshoski: People who know him best call him Lem.
Did anybody have anything bad to say about the guy? Nobody said, "Lemmy? Meh."?
Orshoski: No one.