Mötley Crüe is arguably the most decadent, ridiculous band in a decadent, ridiculous genre, whose infamous excesses extended to recording the choruses of their songs on a different drum kit than the verses, just because they were bored.
Part of the fun of 80s glam metal was that people were throwing that much money at high school dropouts so coked up and lazy that they didn’t even bother to euphemize their songs about getting laid. They wanted to get laid so they wrote songs about getting laid and got laid — less because of the quality of their songs than the volume of their hair. It was the perfect symbol of the American dream as applied to the 80s, the entire genre representing the ultimate triumph of production values over content.
Which is why it’s so weird to watch a movie about them that seems above all to be defined by cheapness. The Dirt‘s wigs are bad, the acting is worse, and they didn’t even spring for Tommy Lee’s spinning drum kit. Honestly, they show Tommy Lee drawing the drum kit, but we don’t actually see it until the stock footage at the end. Isn’t this supposed to be a Mötley Crüe biopic? Play the hits!
The Dirt is, of course, based on The Dirt, probably the most entertaining “oral history” biography ever written, whose highlights include stories about Ozzy Osbourne snorting ants, people mainlining alcohol (literally), and the boys in the band pooling their money to buy a burrito to put their penises into to remove the smell of groupie so their girlfriends wouldn’t find out. The movie version had been in development since 2006, with director Jeff Tremaine from Jackass attached since 2013.
You’d think the guy from Jackass would be a great choice, and there are times in the film when it seems like he might be, or could’ve been under different circumstances. The characters address the camera directly between chapters, like a Jackass video, and many of the antics in it seem like a more misogynistic version of Jackass. (A scene where someone goes down on a groupie in the middle of a backstage party until she eventually squirts on everyone in the room, for instance.)
The smart creative choices turn out to be few and far between, however, starting with the casting. Douglas Booth plays Nikki Sixx, the driving creative force behind the band and the member with the most compelling backstory. (Or, at least, the most plausible excuse for the party monster drug addict he eventually became.) We see Sixx in the film begin as Frank Feranna Jr., born to a father who abandoned him and a mother who cursed him with a succession of abusive stepdads, until he finally hacks his arm open and blames it on his mother just to get away from her. The movie version probably lacks some shades of nuance, but this is The Dirt; sensationalism plays.
What doesn’t work is Booth as grown up Sixx. Booth is an English actor with the tiny nostrils and square jaw of a high fashion model, too pouty for a white trash rock hero from the sticks. He isn’t even really believable in voiceover — of which The Dirt has many, some seemingly inserted to explain transitions someone must’ve thought were too jarring after the rough cut screening. The whole film fairly reeks of outside meddling, and you wonder if there will one day be a Neil Strauss oral history of how this movie turned out so bad.
Rapper Machine Gun Kelly, aka Colson Baker, is better cast as Tommy Lee, at least resembling Lee in his wiry frame and working hard to ape Lee’s sunny, excited marching band bro persona. But the depiction is one note, partly because of the way it’s written and partly because Kelly probably needs a few more acting reps to pull it off. Daniel Webber as Vince Neil is notable mostly for his resemblance to Garth from Wayne’s World and for having the most distractingly terrible fake beard stubble I’ve seen outside of a Halloween party. Fine, a flipping drum set is expensive, but could Netflix really not afford a beard guy?
The only bright spot is Iwan Rheon, aka Ramsey Bolton from Game of Thrones, as Mick Mars, who’s both the most competent actor and the most compelling character, the stoop shouldered misanthrope in constant pain stuck in a bubblegum band surrounded by stoked bros.
It’s a bit much to expect a film that can’t even shoot realistic facial hair to get at what makes its characters tick, but yes, that is also a problem.
The Dirt wants to sell us Mötley Crüe in traditional biopic form, with an origin story and a plan to “shake up” the industry, but the format doesn’t fit the subject. Nikki Sixx keeps talking about innovating, and trying not to sound like anyone else. What? Mötley Crüe? Glam metal was a conformist genre for a conformist time. Surely the Crüe weren’t as big of tools as Poison or Warrant or some of the genres worst posers, but they lived in a world where Van Halen and Bon Jovi already existed. They weren’t reinventing the wheel, and I doubt they thought they were. When grunge hit it seemed novel solely because they were the first bands in like 10 years not to be covered in makeup and hairspray. When Green Day broke a few years later everyone thought they were British because they didn’t have long hair.
Mötley Crüe was a grift as much as it was a band. These were guys who conned women into paying their bills while they were scraping their way to the top, cheating the entire time, trying to have the most flyers, the biggest hair, and the “coolest” look. They didn’t necessarily do anything new, they just did it big. You wonder if them finding an endless sea of women willing to perform any sexual act for them, simply because they had the trappings of stardom, contributed to their generally transactional attitude towards women.
But of course, The Dirt never much interrogates that. For all the squirting, fucking, and female nudity in it, it never even shows the dicks going into the burritos. I’m not being glib here, that should be the minimum bar for a movie about Mötley Crüe. The Dirt wasn’t entertaining because it was “fun,” like an Entourage episode, it was entertaining because it was legitimately gross, with depraved men thriving in a climate of moral hypocrisy. If you just show the hotels and groupie sex part without the burning their stinky penises on breakfast burritos part, you’re missing the point. It’s supposed to make you feel slightly nauseous.
There’s one standout scene in The Dirt, the infamous Ozzy Osbourne ant-snorting sequence. Ozzy is played by Tony Cavalero, one of the film’s most effective actors in its most convincing costume, proving himself more of a “rock star” than the boys by snorting ants and licking up urine. The scene is good because it’s not about how “fun” everything was, it’s about how these guys competed to be the most depraved. It stands apart for nailing what the rest of the movie misses: Mötley Crüe were the dark heart of 80s consumerism — they weren’t a feel-good Entourage episode.