We’re finally reaching a moment in time where we’re getting biopics of ’80s music acts – and good ones, too. Last year saw the box-office (and award-winning) phenomenon Bohemian Rhapsody prove the love for Queen remains as strong as ever. Rocketman promises to bring at least some of Elton John’s iconic songs – and songs – to the big screen this summer. I’ve never listened to much Mötley Crüe, and I’m only a little familiar with some of their bigger hits. But I know the legend. Or more accurately, I know of the band’s legendary bad reputation, which a movie like The Dirt both embraces and admonishes in equal measure.
Mötley Crüe was the poster child for sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. Whatever other bands did, they did it harder. Dark clouds seemed to follow them everywhere, and The Dirt has a firm grasp on how it all went south. Based on Neil Strauss’ book The Dirt: Confessions of the World’s Most Notorious Rock Band, which collects the raunchiest and most outrageous stories from all four band members, the movie switches its perspective from each of the guys throughout, diving into the world of 1980s hair metal and makes the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle come off as unappealing as ever.
Beginning in 1973, we see future bass player and band leader Nikki Sixx (Douglas Booth) – then Frank Feranna Jr. – as a young boy whose father walks out on him and his mother. What remains of his salty relationship with his mother completely evaporates as she constantly blames him for his dad’s departure. Eventually little Frank has enough, and stabs himself with a knife, then frames his mother in order to get out of her custody. Further putting the nail in the coffin of forgetting his past, he legally changes his name to Nikki Sixx, ceremoniously burning his ‘old’ driver’s license in effigy.
Jump ahead to 1980, where drummer Tommy Lee (Colson Baker i.e. rapper Machine Gun Kelly) meets Sixx following a gig. Lee comes from a considerably more traditional family with everyone loving and supportive. Perhaps a little too much. His parents give him unlimited freedom, but never considers that all this love and support may be a mask for enabling without limits. This is evident by Lee’s inability to ever see the world with a mature mindset. He’s fun and fancy free, but also never knows the consequences of his actions – even after the fact.
Lee and Sixx hold auditions for a guitar player and lead singer, where they recruit Mick Mars (Iwan Rheon) and Vince Neil (Daniel Webber), respectively. Mars is several years older than everyone else, the only real “adult” in the room, but the rest of the guys don’t ever heed his advice. We also learn Mars is plagued by a degenerative spine disorder which would necessitate a hip replacement, and continues to haunt him throughout his career. Neil is a sex-addict who can sing his lungs out, though openly admits that he couldn’t care less about the music. He’s really the character to watch throughout this journey. More on that later.
The Dirt is that rare type of biopic that holds our hand every step of the way, yet manages to have fun within those confines, and this approach is infectious. While it doesn’t have the most original narrative, the storytelling still feels inventive, perhaps owing to the freedom of the Netflix environment (the film is Unrated, and no doubt would have earned a hard R or worse), constantly breaking the fourth wall to let us know what’s real and what’s been dramatized for effect.
We see pretty much every stage in the band’s formation, including how they come up with their name – complete with the famous metal umlauts. The story hits all the typical rock biopic cliches, but especially the ones we really want to see. Showing all four perspectives helps to evoke empathy for each involved, and we see how people from vastly different backgrounds can still be destructive in their own ways, both positively and negatively.
The Dirt is truly about likable characters doing unlikable things, which subverts most people’s ideas about what it means to like someone. Can we admire people who do bad, and sometimes terrible, things? Sure. We don’t have to detest them because we don’t agree with their lifestyle choices. And director Jeff Tremaine (Jackass) does an excellent job of not letting the bandmates’ behaviors prevent us from being invested in them. His balancing act with all four leads is impressive, never making us feel like we’re too focused on just one guy, while also giving us plenty to chew on with each of them.
However, not all of the cast shines. Baker as Tommy Lee, specifically, gives an often stiff performance that’s almost laughable a few times. Though he adequately replicates Lee’s happy-go-lucky side, he’s less successful portraying the drummer’s darker and more destructive side. Webber’s performance as Vince Neil is an outlier, and the way he tracks development over the course of the film is seamless. Credit Tremaine for providing a seamless transformation, as well as Webber, for managing to handle multiple and often conflicting narratives so effectively.
Over the course of the film we see the band deal with drugs, women, death, violence, and the various combinations of all these things. Everything and anything goes in the twisted world of Mötley Crüe. But this trip down the world’s dirtiest rabbit hole never becomes overwhelming as it’s pretty damn dirty from the get go, the opening scene helping set the tone – and our tolerance levels – for what’s to come.
The drama never feels contrived because it always makes sense, at least in hindsight. Tremaine’s film also expects us to see their success through an interpretation of fate, as though their ultimate triumph as an iconic band (which they remain to this day) was a culmination of everything they’d lived through to get to that point. In a story that should have its characters riddled with regret and shame, we’re able to see (and possibly even relate) in their journey, contemplating a world in which these flawed individuals will become better people in the end because they were run through this rock ‘n roll grinder in the first place.
Like most music biopics The Dirt is less concerned about the music and more about the personalities and dynamics within the group. It’s not like hardcore Mötley Crüe fans won’t get plenty of both, though, as the soundtrack (which includes a few ‘new’ songs from the band) is a constant and relentless presence as any of the individual members. Ultimately, however, even the best Mötley Crüe songs served more as vessels for their debauched lifestyle as the band members once held a similar indifference for their brand of art. But the music was always a vessel for the lifestyle, and The Dirt is smart enough to know when to come back to it.