It’s hard to imagine a less of-the-cultural-moment movie than The Dirt, the story of Mötley Crüe’s rise to fame and fortune. The 2001 book on which the film (out today on Netflix) is based, and about which its “as-told-to” guy Neil Strauss is contractually forbidden to speak, depicts the members of the group, in their own words, as disgusting criminals — predatory drug addicts, straight-up rapists, and abusers of everyone around them — who should have been shoveled into a trench sometime in 1986, before they could squirt out the 80% worthless Girls, Girls, Girls. (The first two songs are pretty good.) And even at the time, the book was a horror story. It’s baffling that anyone thought this was a story that needed to be retold on film in 2019.
The movie, directed by Jackass co-creator Jeff Tremaine and in production for about a decade, is bad in a lot of different ways. Let’s begin with the basics. The Dirt has almost no visual style at all. There’s one long tracking shot at the very beginning, as the camera travels down the Sunset Strip toward a then-unknown Mötley Crüe’s shared apartment, where people are taking drugs, vomiting, fighting, and “partying.” Later on, there’s a sequence depicting a day in Tommy Lee’s life on tour that can’t even stick to its POV gimmick. Everything else looks like a VH1 movie, set in generic locations (hotel room, recording studio, concert stage with the audience never shown).
The actors playing Crüe members are a mixed bag. Iwan Rheon, aka Ramsay Bolton on Game Of Thrones, looks more like Glenn Danzig than Mick Mars, but his gimlet-eyed hostility and vampiric silences can be quite funny. Colson Baker, aka Machine Gun Kelly, plays Tommy Lee, and he’s occasionally funny, too. He’s written as the most appealing of the four, because he’s just a genial dipshit instead of an amoral human garbage pile. (Except when he punches his then-fiancée in the face on their tour bus — more about that below.)
Douglas Booth, who plays Nikki Sixx, looks like a 16-year-old in a Halloween wig, and has none of the real dude’s menace. In the book The Dirt, Sixx is a man fueled by hate and rage. Vince Mattis, who plays Sixx as a child, captures that rage; Booth never gets anywhere near his intensity.
Daniel Webber doesn’t look anything like Vince Neil, but he’s the one who goes through the most in the movie, and he’s up to the challenge. Neil, remember, killed his friend, Hanoi Rocks drummer Nicholas “Razzle” Dingley, in a drunken car wreck, and his daughter died of cancer. Webber handles those scenes well, and when he can’t take his bandmates’ sociopathic junkie bullshit anymore and quits, we understand.
The first woman we meet in The Dirt is nameless. She’s there so Tommy Lee can stick his face in her crotch, causing her to ejaculate across the room like a fountain. Vince Neil fucks another woman in the bathroom while her boyfriend waits outside. I think the boyfriend calls her by name, but it doesn’t matter. She’s there to show us her tits.
The overwhelming majority of the women in this movie are present for that purpose. The first time we see Nikki Sixx shoot heroin, a naked woman hands him the needle. We never see her face. There’s another woman who apparently lives under a table at the band’s favorite bar, where she blows anyone who sits down. Before their first big concert, Vince Neil has sex with the band’s A&R man Tom Zutaut’s girlfriend. Pete Davidson, playing a much taller and skinnier version of Zutaut, looks directly into the camera and says, “Never leave your girlfriend alone with Mötley Crüe, because they will fuck her.” I bet the writer imagined a movie theater full of people laughing and applauding that line.
The following female characters get actual dramatic scenes in The Dirt: Nikki Sixx’s mother, whose neglect fuels him creatively; Tommy Lee’s mother, who dotes on him; a girl named Roxy to whom Lee is briefly engaged; Heather Locklear; Vince Neil’s girlfriend at the time of the band’s formation; and Neil’s wife Sharise. Oh, and their daughter, who dies of cancer.
Basic facts about the band’s career are elided, ignored, or changed. The fact that they self-released their debut album is never mentioned. Nor is their first manager, Allan Coffman, or the Canadian tour they undertook in 1982, or their performance at the US Festival in 1983. In the movie, they leap immediately from Hollywood club gigs to opening for Ozzy Osbourne, who’s played by some dude who looks like someone left Sean Michael Scott in the microwave too long. The story gets even blurrier later, when entire albums (Girls, Girls, Girls, Generation Swine, New Tattoo, and even their ultra-hyped 2008 return, Saints Of Los Angeles) are simply never mentioned.
You know what else isn’t mentioned? Tommy Lee’s marriage to Pamela Anderson. Neither is Mick Mars’ four-year marriage to Emi Canyn, one of the band’s backup singers. (There is one scene in which Mars stares across the stage at a woman dressed the way Canyn used to — I guess that counts as an Easter egg for Crüe superfans.)
The made-for-VH1 feel extends to the screenplay. The “Looks That Kill” video is re-created, for no reason. Dialogue is crude and expository, and sometimes addressed directly to the camera, as when manager Doc McGhee tells us they were the worst band he ever worked with, over scenes of the band starting fires and throwing things out hotel windows. More than once, Mars glares at us and tells us that the events being depicted didn’t actually happen that way, which when combined with the people and events that have been cut out, makes the viewer wonder if any of it’s true, besides the deaths and overdoses. At one point, Sixx gives his bandmates a pep talk before they take the stage at their “first big arena concert” — its “nobody thought we’d make it this far” earnestness is actually laughable.
The best moment in the movie belongs to Webber, as the band is rehearsing for the Theater Of Pain tour. When McGhee tries to hype him up about the new album, he says, “Two decent songs. The rest is pure shit. Believe me, I know — I’m gonna be the only one sober up there every night trying to sell it.” The second-best scene in the movie comes much earlier, when the band gets together for the first time and plays “Live Wire.” Mötley Crüe’s early material infused the party metal of Van Halen with the anger of LA punk, and that one scene allows the viewer to remember/realize why people liked them.
Unfortunately, a lot of the rest of the movie makes Mötley Crüe almost impossible to like. As mentioned above, Tommy Lee punches a woman to whom he’s supposedly engaged in the face on their tour bus during an argument, and the scene just ends there. The woman is never seen or spoken of again. And the bandmates aren’t just assholes to strangers; they’re assholes to each other. Sometimes it’s funny, as when Mars calls Lee “Drummer” to his face; other times it’s not, as when Sixx is too smacked-out to deal with other human beings at all. But it ends with the band members marching toward the stage of some anonymous arena, laughing and arm in arm, so… hooray?
The Dirt is a poorly written, lazily directed, cheap-looking and ultimately kind of boring movie about one of the scummiest gangs of sociopaths to ever go multiplatinum. I can’t believe it was made.
The Dirt is out now on Netflix.