Sex, drugs and rock n' roll is the treasured mantra of anyone looking to form a rock band.

On their debut album, 13, a pack of wild, young Wellington degenerates calling themselves Head Like a Hole slightly rejigged those time-honoured priorities in prophetic fashion.

At the time the song Narcotics, Noise and Nakedness appeared to be a clever bit of alteration on a trusty old trope. What it didn't appear to be was a mission statement.

As the extraordinary new documentary Swagger of Thieves makes abundantly clear, it was a mistake to not take the rockers at their word. When the group replaced sex with drugs in their order of preference it was a signal of intent and should have been read as such.

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Funnily enough sex didn't even take the number two spot in their priority queue. Noise claimed the silver.

Head Like A Hole supplied for TimeOut by Maria Robinson. NZH 08Aug13 - HAPPY TOGETHER: Head Like a Hole discovered working together after about 13 years was like they had never been apart. NZ
Head Like A Hole supplied for TimeOut by Maria Robinson. NZH 08Aug13 - HAPPY TOGETHER: Head Like a Hole discovered working together after about 13 years was like they had never been apart. NZ

Because they tend to behave like greasy jokers or bogan outlaws it's easy to forget that HLAH has more than their fair share of modern Kiwi classics under their leather studded belts.

But, good to their word, over the past two decades HLAH have delivered uncompromising slabs of noisy, quality, rock n' roll that veers haphazardly between ramshackle sing-a-longs (Comfortably Shagged, Crying Shame, Cornbag) and mosh-pit pleasing grunt (Fish Across Face, The Great Wall, Keith)..

Despite the band's healthy obsession with everything sleazy (Wet Rubber, Juicy Lucy, Hot Sexy Lusty), the nakedness could well refer to the band's early embrace of nude performance rather than any legendary feats of swordplay.

Despite being filmed over a ten year period there's very little sex in the doco. Instead the film shows in shockingly uncompromising fashion that hard drugs turned HLAH on more than anything else. And almost turned them off for good.

HLAH's core is the friendship between vocalist Nigel 'Booga' Beazley and guitarist Nigel Regan. Two high school friends whose dirty rock n'roll band had a real shot at conquering the world but blew that chance by choosing to shoot up.

Nigel Beazley from Head Like a Hole At Forsyth Barr Stadium. Supplied for Vibe magazine
Nigel Beazley from Head Like a Hole At Forsyth Barr Stadium. Supplied for Vibe magazine

Fittingly, it's this friendship that director/producer/financier Julian Boshier's remarkable documentary focuses on. Much like the band it chronicles SoT is grimy and uncompromising. So much so that he didn't even bother applying for funding.

"Was I going to get state funding to make a film about a band that contains drug addicts? Probably not," he said when I spoke to him. "But I also didn't want any censorship or restrictions. I wanted an unimpeded outcome."

Lordy, did he get it. I have no doubt that Swagger of Thieves will be regarded as not just a great Kiwi doco but also one of the world's great rock n' roll documentaries. The whole rock n' roll reality is here and should be considered mandatory viewing for anyone considering picking up a guitar, plugging in some turntables or installing production software.

It shows the glitz of the music biz and the gutter of drug addiction. It takes you from adoring stadium stages to stages that are far too small. From chart success to near irrelevance. From touring the world to washing windows. From awards ceremonies to hospital beds...

Not only does Swagger of Thieves pull back the curtain on the seedy underbelly of the music industry through the viewpoint of the seediest group to ever storm the gates, but it also shows New Zealand's needle culture in a very raw way.

Pictures of Head Like a Hole for film festival movie Swagger of Thieves. For TImeOut. Author Chris Schulz NZH 03Aug17 - Scenes from the making of Swagger of Thieves.
Pictures of Head Like a Hole for film festival movie Swagger of Thieves. For TImeOut. Author Chris Schulz NZH 03Aug17 - Scenes from the making of Swagger of Thieves.

As a documentarian Boshier doesn't ever get in the way. He doesn't appear and offers no judgement or opinion. His ever-present camera documents proceedings with a straightforward simplicity while Beazely provides on-camera narration.

He can be considered an unreliable narrator. As he and Regan compare the amounts of heroin in their syringes he insists they're just "dabbling" in the drug, while a singularly focused Reagan lips his licks in impatience.

As you'd expect of a frontman Beazley oozes personality and carries the film - and the band - with his sheer belief in rock as a calling. He's funny, with a wild glint of mischief. Reagan, by contrast, is reserved and clouded in that same aura of junkie cool as Keith Richards and Izzy Stradlin.

It's also worth noting that both Nigels do excellent beards and have a well honed eye for choosing hats. That said, neither look particularly cool when drug fiending, almost breaking up the newly reformed band in a bitter argument over $25 or complaining that someone might see them getting their daily dose of methadone.

To its credit (and my jaw-dropping amazement) Swagger of Thieves shows these scenes in all the nitty-gritty detail. After 10 years of toil and hundreds of thousands of his own dollars Boshier has truly made one of the most exceptional documentaries this country has produced.

It's dirty. It's raw. It's rock n' roll.