‘The Nine Lives of Ozzy Osbourne’: From Biting Bats To Fighting Parkinson’s, Director R. Greg Johnston On Capturing The Heavy Metal Legend

Ozzy Osbourne has had much of his life captured on film, whether it was early shows from Black Sabbath, the pioneering heavy metal band formed in the late 1960s, or MTV’s reality series The Osbournes.

His story, from biting the head off a bat at a show in Iowa to urinating on the Alamo, has also been told numerous times in Behind The Music-style tales. However, in The Nine Lives of Ozzy Osbourne, the musician opens up his life growing up in Birmingham, England as well as his march into madness, becoming the Prince of Darkness and an elder statesmen of the rock n roll world.

Director R. Greg Johnston tells Deadline that he was fascinated to trace the highs and lows of Osbourne’s career over five decades. The feature-length doc airs tonight, September 7 on A&E as part of the cable network’s Biography strand.

“A lot of documentaries have lots of other people telling the story, I haven’t seen it where Ozzy is telling the story and wanted to get underneath the craziness, what was his life growing up, where does this all stem from and his rock n roll success, where did it all come from,” he said. “Going back to the fact that he grew up in a very working class, poor [family]. His parents worked but he had outside plumbing and had dyslexia, was teased and was an outcast from the beginning, which informs who he was as a person, being the class clown as a defence mechanism that turned him into this character because it was survival for him.”

The documentary explores Osbourne’s childhood, his love of The Beatles and how he met Tony Iommi, Bill Ward, and Geezer Butler to start Black Sabbath, which would become one of the biggest, and most legendary heavy metal bands. It discusses how he eventually got kicked out of the band, met Sharon Arden, who became his manager and later wife, and started a successful solo career, with the help of Randy Rhoads.

It also documents his notoriety off stage, from biting the head off a bat during a concert (which he claims he thought was a toy), to biting the head off a dove during a record company meeting, urinating on the site of the Alamo, and fighting drug addiction. This is all before he became a household name thanks to The Osbournes, the MTV reality that paved the way for docuseries such as Keeping Up With The Kardashians, and nearly died during an ATV accident while his wife was going through cancer treatment.

Johnston said that he wanted to make sure that the film touched on these big stories but also show who Osbourne really is. “I know Ozzy is not usually the outlandish crazy [guy], most of that… was usually spur of the moment decisions that came off a night of drinking or doing drugs. The Ozzy I know is super down to earth and when you go over [to his house], he’d offer to make you a sandwich or do you want a cup of tea. He’s very gracious and as [his son] Jack says, he’s a humble naracissist. You have to be a bit of one to be a rock star.”

Johnston has known the Osbournes for a long time, having worked on The Osbournes as well as other shows including Ozzy & Jack’s World Detour. “Because I’ve known them for close to 20 years and we’ve been in very intimate situations, whether it’s doing The Osbournes or post-Osbournes, there’s a level of trust. There’s also something with Ozzy that I don’t see with a lot of other people is that he never tried to hide anything. He doesn’t try to bury stuff and I find that very refreshing. He is very honest and isn’t trying to pull the wool over anybody. He is who is he is. He’s not someone who thinks about what he’s doing, he just does it. there was a level of trust amongst myself and all if them.”

“I’ve done a lot of reality shows and we’ve all probably dealt with folks who don’t have reasons to be primadonnas that are, then you have Ozzy and Sharon who are the opposite of that. Even when we were doing The Osbournes, they would make sure the crew is taken care and even when we were done shooting, there were still relationships with people and a lot of time that doesn’t happen,” he added.

Osbourne has managed to get away with things that many people, including famous rock stars, wouldn’t have, over the years and Johnston believes that’s because Osbourne doesn’t come across as arrogant. “I think it’s because he’s this every day working class guy at heart. Everyone sees a little bit of themselves in Ozzy, whether it’s they want to do the crazy things that he’s done or they cheer him on when those things happen but there’s also something very relatable and loveable about him because he is very down to earth. He came from nothing and for the most part, he’s very humble.”

He adds that the Paranoid and War Pigs singer is also a very “funny f*cking guy”. “He’s not a comic who is trying to be funny, he’ll say shit under his breath that I won’t even catch until ten minutes later and it was hysterical. He’s not working on one liners, he’s not trying to play up anything,” he says.

The film includes much archive of Osbourne’s early life and career, helped by the fact that for most of his working life, he has been signed with Epic Records.

It also touches on some particularly personal issues, such as the night he nearly killed Sharon, the death of Rhoads in a plane crash.

“When Sharon is doing that interview, she’s very honest about that situation and what went on. I think that goes back to the trust and the honesty that they want to have come out,” he says. “[With Randy], it’s painful for him so he doesn’t like talking about it or revisiting it, even though you can tell Randy is a part of his mind almost daily because it was something that had such a huge impact on him.”

In January, Osbourne also revealed his battle with Parkinson’s Disease. Johnston says this came out after the film was finished but they went back and put it in the doc. “It’s something that they’ve dealt with, not knowing what was going on for years, but that was a relief to know and talk about for them.”

The Nine Lives of Ozzy Osbourne was produced in association with the singer, who exec produces along with Sharon and son Jack via Osbourne Media, but it doesn’t feel like a hagiography, one of the tricky lines to balance with documentaries these days. Critical Content also produces with Jenny Daly exec producing along with Osbourne Media’s Peter Glowski and A&E’s Elaine Frontain Bryant and Brad Abramson. LB Horschler is a co-executive producer.

Johnston says that he’d like to tackle more music stories in the future, positing the stories of Dusty Springfield and Joe Walsh as on his hit list.

For Ozzy, it’s possibly best summed up when he says that he’ll retire when he can hear his coffin lid being closed and even then he’d like to do an encore.

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