We’re on the phone with Mötley Crüe bassist Nikki Sixx, the first of many interviews we conduct in preparation for this cover feature to discuss the release of new Crüe biopic The Dirt, a Netflix production, and we opt to address the enormous elephant in the room. “How do you think the band’s attitudes toward women in the ’80s is going to play when presented to a #MeToo-era audience, in their own homes?”
Sixx barely has time to let out an “ummmmm” before the publicist interrupts and asks us to keep the questions geared toward the movie and music, as that is what everyone is “excited about.” No doubt, she’s right. This movie has been 18 years in the making, ever since journalist Neil Strauss released his celebrated book of the same name. Meanwhile, the soundtrack features four new songs, the first material recorded by the band since their farewell tour. There’s a lot to talk about.
But fuck, this is Mötley Crüe. They have gleefully wallowed in and played up the fact that, for the first 10 years of their existence at least, they went out of their way to bring as much decadence, debauchery and depravity down upon themselves and everyone around them as possible. The movie shows it all (or an abridged version of it) in all its gory detail. There are shits and giggles, for sure. But there are also parts that portray frankly disturbing scenes of objectification and misogyny. These were not enlightened young men.
So we put that to Sixx and his publicist cuts in. To his immense credit, the bassist says, “It’s OK, I’ll answer it.” Not to suggest that this response excuses everything that came before it, but he had an out and he chose not to take it.
“I will say that it’s not how people act in 2019,” Sixx says. “It’s definitely not how bands act. It’s era-specific. If we’re watching a movie from the 1700s and they’re burning witches, obviously no one’s burning witches in 2019. It’s kinda the same with the Mötley movie. That was part of the story. I think it would have been a mistake to whitewash it and make it super Disney-like. What I’ve gotten from a lot of people, male and female, is, ‘I was so scared that the film would be neutered.’ We’ve stayed true to the story. We’re not talking about 2019, we’re talking about the ’80s.”
Douglas Booth is the actor who plays Sixx in The Dirt; having spent time with his subject prior to filming, he firmly believes that Sixx, as well as the other band members, are not the same guys that they were back in the ’80s.
“We made a movie that was true to Neil Strauss’ book, which was about a very specific time in history,” Booth says. “We wanted to make a movie that didn’t shy away from what the book was and what people who read the book know.”
Both men raise points that aren’t without merit. That said, were there people alive today who “burned witches,” we probably wouldn’t be saying that they should be left alone because it happened in a different era. It’s inevitable that Mötley have to face this music head on. Director Jeff Tremaine (Jackass) went in knowing all of this but he also knew that he had to tell this story honestly.
“Our goal was just to portray it accurately,” Tremaine says. “This is a true story and we’re trying to show it without pulling punches. It’s warts and all. There was a fun aspect to it and there was a dark aspect to it, and we’re showing all of it.”
Iwan Rheon is best known for playing sadist Ramsay Bolton in HBO’s Game of Thrones, so it’s something of a departure for him to portray Mick Mars, the most responsible member of Crüe. He says that, naturally, conversations took place between the cast, crew and Netflix (the studio behind the film).
“It was very important to Netflix that, while making this movie, everyone felt comfortable as you should in any work environment,” Rheon says. “We made sure it was a very open set, people could talk, and they were clear about making everyone comfortable. I guess the guys got up to some stuff in a different time. It’s all in the book and we’re just telling that story. Different people have different opinions of it but you can’t stop telling stories. In the film, it’s not glorified or glamorized in the way it shows the impact, and how much this life of excess affected them as people. It kind of ruined them. It’s not glorified in any way, and that was important when we were making it. It’s telling the truth of their story, and what happens when you live that life.””
Australian actor Daniel Webber plays Vince Neil in the film. He says: “It’s based on Neil Strauss’ book, which is a tell-all, wild adventure. We really wanted to mirror and explore that book, and look at this particular period of time — the vacuum of the 1980s, rock & roll as it was then — and not gloss over some of the darker aspects of who these guys were. I’m curious to see how that’s received but I think it makes for extraordinary storytelling.”
The murmurings, on social media and from critics, have been mixed thus far, but there’s an element of “contempt prior to investigation” there. The movie, like Strauss’ book, doesn’t glorify any of the band’s bullshit. In an opening monologue, Sixx’s character says, “We were a band — a band of idiots.” And it’s very clear throughout that the lifestyles they lead, the attitudes they have, lead them down dark paths. It takes massive personal changes to set them right again.
“Two things: One is, if you’re pulling from any point in history, you have to be true to that history,” says The Dirt author Neil Strauss. “You can’t whitewash it. Anything through a historical lens is by nature problematic as we grow and evolve as a culture and a society. If you whitewash it, that’s inauthentic but it’s also similar to what fascistic countries do when they just change their histories. But the other part is, there’s a saying: ‘You’ll know your intention by the results.’ In other words, with all the guys in rehab, Nikki killing himself, Vince’s alcoholism — you know that way of life didn’t pay off.”
Mötley Crüe were far from the only band to dive head-first into murky waters in the ’80s (and prior), but they have come to encapsulate the sheer excess, for better or worse. Like many of their ilk, Crüe weren’t averse to sporting a confederate flag on their torn jeans vest (in California, for Christ’s sake). But their darkest moments can’t be explained away by ignorance or questionable aesthetics.
There’s a very clear moment in The Dirt (the movie as well as the book), when the tone drastically and dramatically shifts. It’s all fun and games, everyone is fucking around and having a blast. Then Tommy Lee hits his fiancée. It’s an agonizing scene to watch, primarily because we know that it actually happened. Those who have read the book know that Lee talks about it openly and honestly. It played out pretty much as we see it on the screen.
“When I took the script to [Tommy’s] house a week before we went down to film, and that scene came up, he was just very honest about it,” says Colson Baker, aka rapper Machine Gun Kelly, who portrays Lee in the film. “It was even more intense in the book. I guess the fact that he was so open about it and willing to confront it, it was pretty easy for me to take the pain that I saw and put it onscreen.”
Strauss agrees that the scene signals a change in the camp, thanks to the ramifications of their carefree attitude.
“It’s almost like, it’s fun to race down the PCH until they hit someone, and then there are real-world consequences,” Strauss says. “So whether it’s Razzle, or that scene on the bus with Tommy, or Nikki dying, each of them has that point of, this is where it leads. That’s a theme in movies but also in life. You have to hit your bottom to get out of something. That scene is definitely Tommy’s bottom.”
Whatever your views about Mötley Crüe, this is why the movie succeeds. You can detest them as people, you can hate their music, you can believe that they shouldn’t be forgiven for any of their wrongdoings. The Dirt lays it all out for you, the audience, to make up your own mind. There’s no glorification here, no hiding from the truth. Just a story, told honestly (with some necessary creative license but no changes to key facts).
Those familiar with Mötley Crüe’s history won’t be surprised to learn that two of the most powerful moments in the movie belong to Vince Neil and Daniel Webber: the car crash (due to Neil’s drunken driving) that led to the death of Hanoi Rocks drummer Razzle, and the death of Neil’s young daughter, Skylar.
“A lot of things come up, like the part with my daughter,” Neil says. “All those feelings came right back to the surface, for me, watching that movie. It was hard, and very sad. But that just shows how true the movie was. It just brought all the emotions back. It’s something that happened in 1995 — a long time ago. Losing a child, though, it’s never going to go away.”
“It’s such a sad part of the Crüe’s history and Vince’s history,” Webber says. “It was something that I was very aware of and cautious of, in the sense of, because he’s still alive, trying to pay as much to respect to him, his family and to the people involved in the car crash and Razzle, and really try to tell the story as honestly as possible. I didn’t know another way to do it. Just really try to convey those situations as honestly as possible.”
Befitting a story as turbulent as Crüe’s, getting the movie made was no easy task. Studios were in and then out, scripts came and went, and it looked for a while as if it was never going to happen. As Jeff Tremaine puts it, The Dirt had some “bad mojo” or something.
“I don’t know if there was a main obstacle,” Tremaine says. “We had a deal with another studio, and then right before it was time to really go, everybody that we were working with at that studio left. So we got left in the lurch there, at the 1-yard line. It took a while to find a new deal for it. Luckily, Netflix got involved. Then it was just a matter of getting the right cast.”
“I loved Rich Wilkes’ first script from day one,” Strauss says. “I didn’t think it would be possible to capture it in a movie, but Rich Wilkes, Jeff Tremaine and Amanda [Adelson], and everyone else involved in writing it, captured everything in the book in a film. I don’t know how the hell they managed that. It really has it all. I was stoked to see it. There were many times when I didn’t think this day would come.”
But the day has come, and everyone attached to the project is clearly proud of what has been achieved. Unsurprisingly considering their tender ages, only Baker out of the four Mötley Crüe actors was a fan of the band prior to filming, though they all say that they have a deep affection for the music now.
“Obviously I was aware of them,” Rheon says. “I knew a few of their tunes. I knew a bit about the band and their reputation. I wasn’t a huge Crüe fan, so it was cool to get to know their music while doing the movie.”
Crüe guitarist Mick Mars says that Rheon does a great job of portraying his “sit back and watch” nature.
“He’s just like I was,” Mars says. “Kinda sitting off by myself, watching the other guys do their crazy antics. Sitting in the sun with all the leathers on.”
Webber, who normally listens to jazz, blues and a bit of alternative rock, has a similar story: “My first time really seeing them was for the auditions and seeing the ‘Looks That Kill’ costumes online, and them in the full getup.”
“I was born in 1992,” says Douglas Booth, who also previously portrayed Boy George for a British biopic. “I rediscovered them, you could say. I wasn’t around when they were at the height of their powers. But they’re so ingrained in that ’80s rock culture that I obviously heard their music before. For me, it was a real rediscovery, and I completely fell in love with them when I did the movie.”
Even the director admits that he was more of a fan of Strauss’ book than of the band and their music.
“I’m not the biggest Mötley Crüe fan, though I do like them,” Tremaine says. “I was connected to that book in that when I was reading it, we were right in the middle of going through our own roller coaster with Jackass. It’s just such a similar story in a lot of ways. The guys were sort of just wild animals, going through this rise and fall. Some of it’s super-fun and some of it’s dark, some of it’s sad. Just a very similar story, so I was very connected to it and I wanted to tell that story with accuracy and authenticity. This was an easy story to fuck up.”
That they didn’t fuck it up is testament to those involved. The Dirt does a wonderful job of telling the story of four very different people who had grown tired with the music that surrounded them. Their blend of second-wave metal and New York Dolls–/Alice Cooper–esque garage-glam, which first saw the light with the seminal Too Fast for Love album, was undeniably groundbreaking. We see all of that unfold, as they first grab the attention of an adoring Sunset Strip and then go on to shock the world. While the movie is primarily shot in New Orleans, we’re presented with a view of ’80s Hollywood that feels authentic and takes in all of the iconic features, including a mocked-up L.A. Weekly cover.
And watching closely, of course, were the band members themselves. They must have been impressed with the very believable onstage footage, something that the movie band rehearsed for hours. Crüe drummer Tommy Lee says as much, stating that he was amazed at the attention to detail regarding the clothes, cars and technology of the time, and also of the actors and their performances.
“I remember sitting in New Orleans watching the band rehearse,” Lee says. “Nikki and I were looking at each other going, ‘This is fucking ridiculously surreal.’ I feel like we’re watching us. It’s bizarre but beautiful.”
Meanwhile, that theme of not pulling punches is reiterated by Sixx, who says the band said whatever they wanted to in interviews from the very beginning.
“If you’re gonna have a career, it means that you’re gonna have hills and valleys,” Sixx says. “It’s pretty easy to be at the top — in fact, it’s a lot of fun. At the bottom, you’ve just got to ride it out and keep doing the work. … The music business is slow sometimes but the movie business is really slow. There’s a lot of checks and balances. It was optioned to Paramount, but it was a little too raw. They were maybe hoping we’d clean it up a little bit but that wasn’t really who the band was. We’d rather not have a movie than have a vanilla movie. So it took a while. Netflix has balls of steel. They just told us, make the movie that is the book.”
“I love the film,” Vince Neil says. “When I saw it, I thought I’d be critiquing it, going, ‘That wasn’t like that,’ or whatever. But after the first three minutes of the movie, I actually forgot it was about us. It was like a really cool rock movie. It’s pretty accurate. They stuck right to the book. Obviously it’s hard to put 10 years of craziness into two hours. They did a great job of picking and choosing the right things for the storyline.”
While Sixx says that the film was therapeutic, he admits that the scenes involving his mother were tough to watch. His mom died a few years ago, before the pair made peace.
“I guess this is a life lesson,” Sixx says. “I’m a very stubborn and determined man, and I like to think that I stick to my guns and keep my word. My mom could never apologize for abandoning me. That’s all I ever wanted, was for her to say, ‘I was young, I fucked up.’ Every time I tried to get me and her on the same page, she always played the victim. That always angered me, so every time we hung up the phone, there was no resolve. Shamefully I never went to my mother’s bedside when she died. It’s not one of my prouder moments.”
“One of the beautiful things about this film is it’s not just ‘PARTY, YEAH’,” Lee says. “That’s not what it was like all the time. We had some serious fucking highs and some serious, serious lows. The beauty of the film is it shows them. It was fucking mad back then. The fact that we’re all alive is beyond me.”
On a happier note, Mötley Crüe recorded four new songs for the film, including the title track (which featured the rapping talents of Machine Gun Kelly) and a bizarre cover of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin.” All this, despite the four of them contractually agreeing to never tour together again.
“Everyone thinks we broke up,” Neil says. “We didn’t break up, we just stopped touring. We’re still a band, we’re still four guys that have a really cool company called Mötley Crüe. You’ll always be hearing from us, one way or another.”
Sixx says that writing and recording with his old colleagues again was like riding a bike.
“Everybody does something in this band that is unique,” he says. “Bob [Rock, producer] is so good for us at making us be the best version of our band as possible. He lets the band be a band, and then he figures out where to tighten it up or push it together. We’ve always allowed it to not be perfect because that’s the bands we grew up with — Cheap Trick, Aerosmith, Bowie, the Pistols. I think these new songs feel like Mötley Crüe.”
“For me it was a last-minute thing,” Mars adds. “I just went in there and did my parts. But with today’s technology I could do them in just a few days and I think they sound really good. A new step for Mötley.”
The Dirt probably will suffer when mentioned in the same breath as another L.A.-centric movie, Straight Outta Compton, or recent mega-success Bohemian Rhapsody, because of how damn uncool Mötley Crüe are according to conventional wisdom. And sure, there are no actors here likely to win Oscars next year. But the movie benefits from having a real story to tell, and a passionate team behind it. We put it to Baker that The Dirt could have a similar impact to Straight Outta Compton, in that it likely will have an appeal stretching far beyond the band whose story it tells. Machine Gun Kelly wholeheartedly agrees.
“Yes, because people want attitude again, people want honesty again,” the rapper-actor says. “It’s not easy to be squeaky clean. You’re a fucking liar if that is your story. People need a punch in the face, especially in cinema right now. Straight Outta Compton was a knockout punch. [The Dirt is] a movie about a genre that people have written off for the last 10 years, and they shouldn’t have. We’ve seen the term ‘rock star’ be thrown around so lightly to all these people who aren’t fucking rock stars. People need to put some respect back on the term ‘rock star’ because it shouldn’t be thrown around loosely. There are people who have died by that term.”
The Dirt is released on Netflix on Friday, March 22.