‘This Isn’t Spinal Tap’: Dishing the Dirt on Motley Crue’s Surprisingly Dark Biopic

Nikki Sixx says anyone coming to "The Dirt" looking for just "a fun ‘80s music movie" is in for a big surprise.

Jake Giles Netter

The new, eagerly awaited Motley Crue biopic, based on Neil Strauss’ best-selling 2001 book, “The Dirt: Confessions of the World’s Most Notorious Rock Band,” premieres today on Netflix after a seemingly endless 13 years in development hell.

Those anticipating “a fun ‘80s music movie,” as Crue bassist Nikki Sixx puts it, will inevitably be stunned by the final product, a dark-laced cautionary tale that balances the thrill of making it as a rock god against the downside of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll excess. “The Dirt” takes the “A Star Is Born” theme of the perils of fame and convincingly sets it in the late ‘70’s/early ‘80s punk/metal milieu of Hollywood, complete with a recreation of the Crue’s legendary party house just up the block from the Whisky, where one of its memorable scenes takes place.

“There’s no varnish in this movie, no whitewashing,” insists one of the film’s producers, longtime Motley Crue manager Allen Kovac, who helped steer the movie through a byzantine production process which began in 2006, when Tom Freston first optioned the book for MTV Films, with director Larry Charles (“Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “Borat”) attached.

Sumner Redstone’s abrupt firing of Freston as Viacom CEO in the fall of that year sent the movie into limbo, even as fans such as David Fincher kicked the tires on directing the project.

“Freston got what this movie could be,” says Kovac. “He had an edge to him, a creative soul who used both the right and left sides of his brain.”

After briefly being picked up by Focus Features in 2015, Steve Kline, who heads up Kovac’s Eleven Seven Music Group as COO, helped bring A-list producers Julie and Rick Yorn into the fold, eventually joined by Erik Olsen (“The Book of Eli”) and “Jackass” director Jeff Tremaine, with Netflix then agreeing to come aboard.

“I read the book while we were filming the first ‘Jackass’ movie,” says Tremaine. “I felt a similarity to the band’s mayhem with the chaos we were creating. I had experienced many of the same incidents of addiction and death with the ‘Jackass’ gang that made me really connect to the band’s stories in ‘The Dirt.’”

Despite the time it took to finally get the movie made, Sixx, played by UK actor Douglas Booth (“Noah,” “The Riot Club”), never gave up hope. “There were definite frustrations on our part. We felt from the start we wanted to tell a story that had multiple layers, with characters that had some depth to them.”

“We had a lot of great material, but it took us years to get the script to a place where we felt it captured the spirit of the story we were telling,” adds Tremaine.

And while the film version of “The Dirt” doesn’t hold back on the book’s highlights — including the memorable scene where Ozzy Osbourne (played broadly by the Groundlings’ Tony Cavalero in a woman’s dress) snorts a row of ants and proceeds to slurp up his own urine while on tour with the Crue — it also inspires empathy for the band members’ individual tragedies. Those range from stark scenes depicting Sixx’s drug addiction and near-death experience to singer Vince Neil’s car accident, in which Hanoi Rocks bassist Razzle was killed, and the death of his young daughter Skylar from cancer. There are also intense depictions of domestic violence between Tommy Lee (played by rapper Machine Gun Kelly) and his wife Heather Locklear (Rebekah Graf) and glimpses of the degenerative muscle disease which threatens to paralyze Mick Mars (Iwan Rheon, Ramsay Bolton on “Game of Thrones”), lending gravitas to the increasingly senseless partying.

Other casting coups include Saturday Night Live’s” red-hot Pete Davidson as Tom Zutaut, the A&R exec who signed Motley to Elektra and is most infamous for being peed on in pique by the Nymphs’ Inger Lorre; “Billions” co-star David Costabile as the band’s legendary first manager, Doc McGhee); and Aussie star Daniel Webber, best known for his role in Netflix’s Marvel series “The Punisher,” as Neil.

“It was our intention to show the truth, but we didn’t set out to necessarily do ‘Trainspotting,’” explains Nikki. “We wanted to show the thrill of making it as a young band, and then, when people are just getting sucked into the story, the mood suddenly changes, and everybody’s actions come back to bite them in the ass. But it only made us stronger as a band. What I love is that you see how we made that series of decisions — the good ones as well as the bad — and ultimately decided to put the family back together.”

“The Dirt” shows that there are consequences to our bad behavior, and if the film lacks a feel-good, cathartic ending like “Bohemian Rhapsody,” it depicts all the inherent pitfalls with stark alacrity, including Nikki’s own abusive upbringing.

“This isn’t ‘Spinal Tap,'” insists Sixx. “We wanted this movie to have the temperature of ‘Goodfellas,’ along with some of the saturation and grit of a ‘Boogie Nights.’”

Indeed, Scorsese’s gangland classic gets an homage when the film shows the band’s original co-manager Doug Thaler simply disappear into thin air, while the idea of unreliable narrators gets a boost when Ian Rheon’s Mick Mars (who gets virtually all the movie’s funniest deadpan lines) faces the camera and admits, “This didn’t really happen,” after one rather raunchy interlude.

“What I love about all the actors is they wanted these roles because of the depth of the characters,” says Nikki. “Jeff [Tremaine] directed these young men so well you forget it’s a real band up there. It was important that the actors felt like the people they’re playing.”

“I wanted all of the actors to meet the real guys, but I didn’t encourage them to spend a lot of time with them,” says Tremaine. “I wanted them to do their homework, but to ultimately make each character their own.”

As for the decision to forego a theatrical release in favor of Netflix, Nikki is all-in on streaming.

“Sure, there are some fans on our Facebook page complaining that there won’t be a Blu-Ray or DVD,” says Sixx. “But why do you need to carry around a disc when you can watch the movie a million times on your phone, your computer or your TV? Streaming is the future and Netflix is the biggest streaming company out there. It’s a good way to connect with young fans who are just discovering rock ‘n’ roll for the first time. We want to bring everyone along to the future and not just live in the past. This band’s goal has always been about trying out new things, experimenting… shaking it up.”

Watching himself shoot up on camera wasn’t half as hard for Nikki as dealing with the scenes involving his late mother. “There was always a hole inside me because of that abandonment,” says the 60-year-old with a family of his own. “I realized in therapy I’m just a product of that environment.”

For Sixx, the wait for “The Dirt” to come to the screen — no matter the size — was worth it. “I really feel proud of this movie,” he says. “It’s 100% true.” (Give or take that scene labeling itself as fiction.)

Naturally, there will always be trolls and dissenters, wanting the envelope to have been pushed even further into R or NC-17 territory. Comedian Eric Andre was disappointed at least one salacious detail from “The Dirt” was left out.

“He gave me shit for not having Douglas Booth shoot heroin in his dick,” laughs Tremaine.