Call Me Doctor Feelgood
Were you alive in the eighties? If not, do you wish you had been? And, most important of all, do you rock? All four members of the great rock and roll glam band Motley Crüe – Vince Neil, Tommy Lee, Mick Mars, and Nicki Sixx – collaborated with author Neil Strauss for a tell-all music autobiography called The Dirt that was published in 2001. They literally wrote the book together, with each member of the band writing different chapters and therefore capturing their respective points of view. They held nothing back and gave an intimate recounting of their dizzying highs and lows. The Doc read the book back when it first came out, and as a lifelong fan of the band, I absolutely loved it. If you love the eighties and rock music, nothing can top The Dirt for sheer entertainment value but also for the pathos of everyone involved. As far as those initial questions are concerned? I was only an adolescent, but I was certainly alive. And I wanted to rock. And as the book and movie of The Dirt prove, they sure as hell don’t make em like they used to.
Some exposition is necessary to show how the band came together, starting with the melodramatic origin story of Nikki Sixx (Douglas Booth), known then as Frank Ferrana Jr. Young Frank tires of his mother’s endless stream of boyfriends and lack of attention before running away from home. The Dirt is performed in a true “rockumentary” style with voiceover narration from all of the principles and the occasional “breaking of the fourth wall” which is hipster lingo for when an actor looks straight into the camera and addresses the audience. Normally I would be leery of this tactic, but it’s a perfect fit for The Dirt. The excess and craziness of the eighties has almost become cliched by now… and it was excessive and crazy, so I think that these filmmaking devices were well employed and served to tell the story.
One factor that is almost eerily fascinating about so many biographies/filmographies of successful musicians or actors is how often success hinged on a twist of fate or circumstance or a seemingly less than auspicious meeting. This was certainly true of Motley Crüe, whose genesis lies in a chance encounter between a teenaged Tommy Lee (Colson Baker, aka Machine Gun Kelly) and Nikki Sixx in a Los Angeles diner at the exact point in time that Sixx was leaving his band London. The right people found each other, from Lee, who had cut his teeth as a drummer in his suburban high school marching band, to “old man” Mick Mars (Iwan Rheon) who responded to a newspaper personal ad asking for a guitarist and, of course, front man Vince Neil (Daniel Webber) who at the outset was only interested in music as a means to get laid, something he seemed particularly adept at.
The Dirt chronicles the Crue’s rapid ascent on the L.A. club scene in the early 1980’s at popular venues like The Whisky and The Troubadour. The goal of the band, as outlined by Nikki, is to give the audience something they have never seen before, to bring the high-octane concepts of stadium rock to the clubs. KISS had been around for a while, but the Motley Crue boys must still have been a hard pill to swallow to most mainstream rockers in the early eighties. Four guys in spandex, high heels, and makeup belting out “Live Wire” and “Shout at the Devil”? The film adaptation of The Dirt includes a small club scene where some in attendance aren’t quite ready for the Crüe and react violently, but the boys respond in kind and start winning people over.
Before long, they are opening for Ozzy Osbourne on the “Monsters of Rock” tour. Praise is due to actor Tony Cavalero in his brief appearance as Osbourne, who not only looks and sounds like Osbourne but perfectly captures the mid-career lunacy that Ozzy was famous for*. Soon the Crüe are headlining stadium tours and living a neverending orgy of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. This was rock and roll stardom as it existed in the eighties, and the movie recounts one of my favorite chapters from the book, that of a 24 hour timeline provided by Tommy of a typical day in the life on the “Girls, Girls, Girls” tour that begins at 5:00 pm when he awakens and ends when he passes out in a different hotel room at 9:00 am the next morning, only to be reawakened at 5:00 pm to begin the exact same insanity anew.
The film then switches in tone as it covers some of the darker elements of the band’s chronology including the tragic drunk driving accident involving Neil and Hanoi Rocks drummer Nicholas “Razzle” Dingley that resulted in Razzle’s untimely death at the age of twenty-four and Neil serving a short stint in jail. Nikki’s descent into heroin addiction is also covered, and Booth – his performance grew on me over the course of the film – delivers as the strung-out Nikki, leading up to the moment when he overdosed and literally died for a few seconds before being resuscitated by paramedics.
By far the most touching and devasting part of the book is when Vince Neil peels back the layers of his skin and discusses – in detail – the courageous battle of his little girl Skylar with stomach cancer and his own coping with her subsequent death. It made me empathize with Neil in a way that I could not and can not with any other celebrity. He laid himself bare and shared his pain and the intimate details of this most tragic period of his life. These scenes in the movie felt slightly forced into the narrative although it must have been hard on Neil to watch them, and the scenes certainly do not fail to impact the viewer. As with any movie adaptation of a book that runs over four hundred pages, it’s impossible to do justice to everything in a film running one hour and forty-seven minutes but the filmmakers deserve credit for trying.
Motley Crüe sobered up and kicked ass on the Dr. Feelgood tour of 1989-1990 but, by almost everyone’s account, they couldn’t stand each other when it ended and Neil – depending on who you believe – either quit or was fired from the band shortly thereafter. Would The Tuesday Night Cigar Club run afoul of similar personal disagreements if we all went sober? My heart says no but my brain says yes, so let us not dwell on that hideous horseshit any longer.
I loved the book version of The Dirt and I heard conflicting opinions on the movie before I sat down to view it myself… and in case you haven’t already figured this out, The Doctor is landing on the positive side of the fence. The movie adaptation of The Dirt is an entertaining ride. It’s entirely possible that I am the right age – I was a kid and adolescent during the Crüe’s mid to late eighties heyday and I still think that “Girls, Girls, Girls”, “Kickstart My Heart”, and “Same Ol’ Situation” are great rock songs. None of the actors are exactly dead ringers for the real band members but almost everything they do works for me, and Booth as Nikki Sixx and Baker-MGK as Tommy Lee give performances that are to their credit. I admit that I honestly do not know much about Machine Gun Kelly, but I loved the constant energy he brought as the young Tommy Lee and I am interested in seeing what other acting gigs he pursues. Worth noting is that other than Machine Gun Kelly, the rest of the actors performing as the Crue are not Americans**. That I had no idea of this fact until watching an interview after the movie is a testament to their abilities as performers. I mentioned earlier that Booth as Nikki Sixx kind of grew on me, but in truth they all did, even Rheon and the ridiculous wig he wears in his performance as Mick Mars. Let’s face it, though, could anyone realistically portray Mick Mars? That guy has always been one of a kind.
The Dirt is a fantastic book, and I always encourage reading, but the movie is well worth your time. Especially if you are of a certain age and disposition. It has been said that rock and roll will never die. Sometimes the present state of music makes me wonder. But if you celebrate Motley Crüe and what they stood for, then rock and roll will never die in your heart. Check out The Dirt. As always, good friends, The Doctor wishes you all a clean bill of health.
* I loved Ozzy Osbourne long before he became known to many through his popular reality TV show. Ozzy has a distinctive voice – much like Vince Neil – and he is a true icon of rock. A legendary story told by Tommy Lee and Nikki Sixx involved Ozzy wanting to snort something and, bereft of cocaine, the already woefully intoxicated Ozzy grabbed a straw out of someone’s drink and snorted up a line of ants that were crawling next to a swimming pool. This is gleefully recaptured in the film and has been retold too often to not be true.
** Douglas Booth (Nikki Sixx) is from London, Iwan Rheon (Mick Mars) is a Welshman, and Daniel Webber (Vince Neil) hails from Australia. They all had me fooled. I’ve been fooled repeatedly by non-American actors in movies, but it never ceases to amaze me.