The ‘80s were an era of American excess. The rich got richer. The poor got poorer. Big companies became gigantic conglomerates. Rock stars partied like rock stars, destroying hotel rooms in an orgy of chemical excess. Of all the hard-partying bands of the ‘80s perhaps nobody did it harder than Mötley Crüe, the metal band featuring bassist Nikki Sixx, drummer Tommy Lee, guitarist Mick Mars, and lead singer Vince Neil. Their collective exploits were chronicled in the book The Dirt which is now a movie on Netflix from director Jeff Tremaine. Because The Dirt attempts to tell the story of Mötley Crüe’s incredible highs and their incredible lows, the finished film plays out like a sloppy, sprawling mess of rock ‘n’ roll excess without much of a through line except that it’s miraculous that these shitheads were able to make a living playing music let alone make it out alive.
The Dirt opens with a bit of narration taking the viewer into the time and place of the ‘80s as Mötley Crüe’s star is on the rise. “As far back as I could remember, I always wanted to be a rock star,” is basically the gist of this introductory narration as the film takes us into a party at Crüe’s dingy little apartment up the street from the famed Whiskey a Go-Go. The debauched scene has Tommy Lee (Machine Gun Kelly) performing cunnilingus on a groupie until she squirts; Nikki Sixx (Douglas Booth) drunkenly sets himself ablaze; Vince Neil (Daniel Webber) is having sex in the bathroom with a groupie; and Mick Mars (Iwan Rheon) lies in seclusion in an almost vampire-like state. This was Mötley Crüe.
Before The Dirt can take us into the seemingly never-ending debauchery of Mötley Crüe’s heyday it has to explain how these misfits became a band. This is the least interesting part of the film, and it comes just a few minutes into the rock biopic. Details about Nikki Sixx’s childhood and his contentious relationship with his mother are presented in detail as is his search for his biological father shortly after moving to L.A. Meanwhile, Tommy Lee comes from a loving and caring family unit and an encounter with Sixx in a diner leads to the two forming a band, eventually bringing Mars and Neil into the fold. Then it’s only a matter of time before the quartet of misfits are taking the Los Angeles metal scene by storm.
Mötley Crüe gets their big break and are signed to a record deal by Tom Zutaut (Pete Davidson) and eventually secure Doc McGhee (David Costabile) as their manager. This is when the money begins to pour in and the excesses of sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll kick into high gear. Having emerged as a filmmaker with the Jackass movies, director Jeff Tremaine has a real feel for the moments of debauchery as we follow these drugged up, drunken musicians wreaking havoc across the country in various hotels. At other times they’re joined by other famed metal musicians, including Ozzy Osbourne (Tony Cavalero) and David Lee Roth (Christian Gehring). While the chaos the band unleashes is comically absurd in its destruction and chemical excess, it’s not being used to say anything here. It’s like the craziest elements of The Wolf of Wall Street have been stripped of any commentary about the excesses of wealth or the most toxic elements of masculinity to glorify an over-celebrated, minor talent band.
Naturally, the excesses of Mötley Crüe catch up to all the members. Nikki Sixx becomes addicted to heroin. Tommy Lee marries Heather Locklear and his grueling road schedule ensures that it won’t be a long relationship. Mick Mars struggles with a degenerative disease that eats away at his bones. Vince Neil drives drunk and kills his friend, Hanoi Rocks drummer Nicholas “Razzle” Dingley. It’s a gruesome and horrific crime for which Vince Neil will spend all of 19 days in jail for – and the film just kind of glosses over this dark chapter in a way that is as egregiously wrong as the incredibly light jail sentence Neil served. But none of these moment connect on an emotional level. They’re almost perfunctory additions to ensure that the film can’t be accused of celebrating the bad behavior of its subject.
The Dirt takes on the viewpoint of Mötley Crüe when it comes to women — they’re disposable, interchangeable. The film views them as objects to be ogled, and Tremaine’s camera is always happy to oblige the viewer with bare breasts or lengthy leers at cleavage to anonymous women. This problem even veers into how the film looks at the relationships of the band members. Vince Neil’s marriage to his second wife Sharise (Leven Rambin) is nothing more than a modest plot point. Sharise is given no defining characteristics and though she’s mother of Neil’s daughter Skylar. Later on in the film, Skylar falls ill and dies at the age of four but the emotional aspects of the moment fall flat because the film doesn’t look for depth beyond the surface of these men. Even a famous name like Heather Locklear (Rebekah Graf) doesn’t warrant any kind of depth of character. Look, nobody is expecting a movie about a womanizing heavy metal band to be full of complex female characters but the least they could do is attempt to make at least one or two of them not be fame-hungry groupie sluts.
The Dirt is a celebration of Mötley Crüe, their debauchery and their music. However, neither are particularly good things to be celebrating. Jeff Tremaine is a director with the ability to create a more nuanced take on the excesses of Mötley Crüe, but the film needlessly tries to cram the whole story of the band – the rise and fall and subsequent redemption – into a film running under two hours. The Dirt just fails to effectively capture anything beyond bad behavior, which just so happens to be the beginning, middle, and end of the appeal of Mötley Crüe’s story. The Dirt really feels like a rushed product, something quickly and cheaply made to capitalize on the success of Bohemian Rhapsody only this time it’s unconvincing wigs in place of comically absurd false teeth.
The raucous orgy of excess that defined the metal band Mötley Crüe is now a movie in director Jeff Tremaine’s The Dirt, a rushed and unconvincing biopic that fails to bring any depth beyond the debauchery.