Digging in The Dirt: An inside look at the raucous Mötley Crüe biopic
“The sex, the cash, the fame/Living out a life you can’t deny/The drugs, the lies, the pain/Will never get enough to satisfy,” Mötley Crüe profess in the title track to The Dirt, a biopic that’s as brazen and decadent as the bands’ own music. Based on the 2002 autobiography of the same name, the 90-minute film — a rollercoaster of a cautionary tale enumerating the foursome’s shenanigans with booze, women, drugs, and, of course, rock & roll — is a forthright and fast-paced portrayal of mostly likable ne’er-do-wells who did really well in the music biz, but stumbled in real life.
Like Bohemian Rhapsody, another ballyhooed rock film, The Dirt took years to come to fruition. In fact, explains bassist and de facto band businessman Nikki Sixx, “We were first at Paramount years ago. But there were creative differences as far as keeping it clean. And our story, we felt, is so important to leave the warts and all in. If you take out the ugly parts, then you just have a Disney movie.” (For the record: The final version, which Netflix acquired in 2017, is as much like a Disney movie as Mötley Crüe is like Mother Teresa.)
Though Dirt director Jeff Tremaine admits he was never a Crüe superfan, he had no issues with adapting the book’s racy, unfettered look at a band at the height of their fame. “The book came out right as Jackass [which he directed] was going full steam,” he says. “We all read that book. I was like, “Holy s–t, we’re going through this right now…. I just connected to it and thought that I could tell this story right.”
The Dirt also served as something of a reunion for the group itself. When Sixx and drummer Tommy Lee — who formed Mötley Crüe in 1981, before adding guitarist Mick Mars and singer Vince Neil — visited the New Orleans set in 2018, it was the first time the two had spoken since the final Crüe tour ended, in 2015. “By that time, no one wanted to speak to each other,” explains Lee. “I get it, people need a break, we all do, especially when you eat, sleep, play on stage, travel, do everything together 24/7 — you’re like, ‘I’m over this person. The way they chew their cereal is f—ing killing me right now.’” When they reconnected, any lingering animosity quickly washed away. Adds Lee, “We got to catch up and realized we’ve been in each other’s lives longer than anyone we know. That’s powerful stuff. We kissed and made up and we’re back in love.”
Once on set, the two watched as some of the most shocking moments in their lives played out in front of them: hotel rooms getting trashed, copious amounts of drugs being consumed, and women being hit, vomited on, and generally treated, well, like dirt. Though production began after the #MeToo movement exploded, when queried, Sixx, 60, employs an analogy he’s used in other press appearances: “If you’re making a movie in 2019 about the colonial period and burning witches, and society wants you to remove it because we don’t burn witches anymore, that’s not honest filmmaking,” says the now-sober father of four (with one on the way). “Our outlook on the whole thing: ‘That was then and this is now.’ I’m not the same man I was 30 years ago.” (Sixx recently confessed confusion about a sexual-assault story recounted in the book The Dirt, which doesn’t appear in the film. In a statement, he noted, “I have no clue why it’s in there other than I was outta my head and it’s possibly greatly embellished or [I] made it up. Those words were irresponsible on my part. I am sorry.”)
The film — which stars Douglas Booth as Sixx, Machine Gun Kelly as Lee, Iwan Rheon as Mars, and Daniel Webber as Neil — also includes a recreation of the bassist’s harrowing drug experiences. Lee admits it was difficult standing next to his friend while Sixx’s on-screen doppelgänger pretended to overdose on heroin. “It was pretty heavy,” says Lee. When it occurred in real life, on Dec. 23, 1987, Sixx was declared dead but was revived in the ambulance. Sixx, however, was more struck by the film’s personal moments than the sequence depicting his near-death experience. “The scenes when I’m shooting up, and my mom’s calling me, and we’re both crying, because we just can’t… we’re just not reconciling. It’s hard for me to admit this,” he says. “My mother passed away [in 2013], and we were never able to mend the fence. Seeing the movie, I’m just like, ‘F—k, maybe I should’ve tried a little harder.’”
Lee, 56, and newly married, has misgivings too, pointing to a tour bus incident portrayed in the movie where he hits and bloodies his first wife for calling his mother the C-word. “I kinda didn’t want that in there. I’m not proud of it. But it’s real and it happens to people,” Lee says. “We didn’t hide it when it was in the book. I regret that, and we all make mistakes, but I think it’s important to know; maybe it’ll help someone.”
If The Dirt is a minefield of regrets — especially for Neil, who endured the cancer death of his young daughter and the death of a friend, Hanoi Rocks drummer Nicholas “Razzle” Dingley, in a car accident where Neil was drunk at the wheel — the film has somewhat of a “happy ending,” with Mötley, Sixx says, “rebuilding after tragedy.” After the movie’s action ends in the mid-’90s, the band carried on for another 20 years, releasing three more albums and embarking on a triumphant final arena tour that grossed $86.1 million.
Ultimately, though, Sixx views The Dirt in the greater scheme of things, addressing the social mores of 2019 in relation to a story set in the ‘80s. “The good news for everybody is this band never abused power, that it was definitely consensual and [wild],” says Sixx. “There is a lot of horrible behavior in the book…. No, we weren’t choirboys. Neither was anybody else.”
The Dirt premieres March 22 on Netflix.