The Dirt review – slick Netflix Mötley Crüe biopic mostly rocks

Hot on the heels of Bohemian Rhapsody’s mystifying four Oscar wins and box office glory comes The Dirt, the long gestating biopic of the 80s glam-rock band Mötley Crüe. In the 18 years since the band’s autobiography of the same name hit bookshelves, the film has gone through a series of starts and stops, including the passing interest of David Fincher (imagine!). But unlike the universally beloved Queen, Mötley Crüe are the kind of polarizing band where potential viewers may be more likely to remember the names of the band’s outsized personalities than the names of their hit songs. Suitably, the film finally arrives by way of circumventing the silver screen altogether with the lower stakes Netflix distribution model, a fresh-faced cast and a director known best for compiling amateur-style prank videos.

While we can fantasize about what a visionary like Fincher would have done with the material, the actual film is probably the most apropos of the band’s stature. Mötley Crüe’s music was never destined to win Grammys, nor was their book bound for the Man Booker prize, and this film will not be positioned for Oscars. So, as it turns out, things ended up as they should and the film works pretty well. It’s unlikely to convert skeptics or reveal hidden depths to diehard fans but it moves at a clip and offers enough novelty to overpower the cliches as it chronicles both the punch-drunk nights and the sobering mornings after of this hard-living band.

Things begin in media res at a party featuring exactly the kind of debauchery you would expect from a Mötley Crüe biopic directed by the Jackass maestro Jeff Tremaine. The scene culminates with a gross-out gag that will have many viewers reaching for their remote. But with the exception of a later scene fittingly featuring the band on tour with Ozzy Osbourne, the film isn’t preoccupied with pushing the envelope just for the sake of it. Sure, there’s gratuitous nudity, rampant drug use and general idiocy. But it’s not done in the name of provocation as much as it is out of instinct. As one character notes in the film: “Other bands raised hell because they thought that’s what they were supposed to do. Mötley Crüe did stupid things because they were Mötley Crüe.”

Band leader, songwriter and bassist Nikki Sixx (Douglas Booth) narrates the opening scenes and much of the film, doubling back to share his painful adolescence and the origin of his self-destructive tendencies. Just when things start to feel overly familiar, the film wisely makes a hard left turn and changes its narrator to co-founder and drummer Tommy Lee (Colson Baker), whose sunny, supportive parents and blissful California home offer a counterbalance to Sixx. Fellow band members Mick Mars (Iwan Rheon) and Vince Neil (Daniel Webber) each get their turns narrating, too. The approach keeps things fresh and fast-paced. Some things happen laughably fast – the naming of the band for example – but the pace is in line with the band’s energy and fast ascent.

The hard part about rock’n’roll biopics is they’re usually rags-to-riches and what-goes-up-must-come-down stories with a last-minute redemption. The inevitable pitfall of the genre is that the on-the-rise sequences are really fun and the hitting rock-bottom sequences are really not. The Dirt is no different. So, why tell this story?

Real-life manager and executive producer Allen Kovac has said in interviews that the mission of the movie is to deglamorize the rock’n’roll lifestyle. That does come through, but if it’s really the core message, perhaps they needed a different director than Tremaine. His comic wit (check out the camera’s framing of Sixx burning his old driver’s license) and mastery of controlled chaos makes him a good choice but it also makes the film somewhat lopsided. You could say the second half of the film is intended to be a sobering rejoinder to the first half. But it doesn’t feel like the film-maker’s heart is in it the way it does in the first half. Where Tremaine’s skillset really shines – and by extension the sequences that separate The Dirt from other genre entries – is in capturing the infectious camaraderie of immature male lunacy.

To everyone’s credit, the film does not shy away from the ugliness of the real-life exploits. Given all four band members are co-producers you might think this would be a vanity project. But they commendably include the harrowing sequences of vehicular manslaughter, child neglect, drug overdose and domestic violence that many would rather not remember. That being said, there’s still a sense that some of the dirt has been swept under the rug. And to suggest this is truly a morality tale about the dangers of excess is like suggesting the “kids, don’t try this at home” warning before Jackass really deters impressionable viewers from mimicking the stunts.

The other disappointment with the second half is it plays the familiar notes of failure and redemption but fades out the less conventional elements. How did Tommy Lee’s relationship with his supportive parents evolve (or devolve)? How did Mars cope with his spinal disease? How did the band so shrewdly manage their finances once they won back the rights to their music from Elektra Records? There’s also little to glean about what inspired the actual music. Perhaps that’s intentional. The film does seem to wink to the audience that the theatrics of the band overshadowed their actual music. After a grandstanding concert climax, Mars punctuates the sequence by saying deadpan to the camera: “Blah-de-fucking-blah.”

What makes the film most successful are the four performers. The standout is Baker (better known as rapper Machine Gun Kelly) who plays Tommy Lee with both a sweet naivety and an insidious mischievousness that make some of the darker moments sneak up on you without feeling unearned. Booth, Webber and Rheon possess similar abilities to navigate between charm and repulsion, all working together to create such a chummy group that their power as an ensemble elevates the material. Just like their real-life counterparts.


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