There will never be another Motley Crue. Their unbridled hedonism went out of style once the 90s rolled around; their instant millionaire career trajectory faded into the rearview of history the moment Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning co-founded something called Napster. Rock stars have now long since been replaced by rappers and hip-hop stars as the center of the music universe. No band that sounds, looks, and behaves like Motley Crue will ever achieve anything remotely resembling the level of life-changing success experienced by Nikki Sixx, Tommy Lee, Vince Neil, and Mick Mars in the 80s.
That’s a good thing.
Or at least that’s the conclusion I reach after watching The Dirt, Netflix’s new Motley Crue biopic made by people who seemingly looked at Bohemian Rhapsody’s critical backlash/financial success and figured phoning it in and cranking up the tunes was all they really needed to do. Director Jeff Tremaine (Jackass) and screenwriter Rich Wilkes (Airheads, Glory Daze) make no real attempt to critically engage with the band’s history. Instead, they celebrate a time when rock stars could get away with figurative and literal murder (technically, vehicular manslaughter) and literally come back from the dead (after a drug overdose).
“Never leave your girlfriend with Motley Crue. They will have sex with her!” is an actual line in the movie, delivered by an oddly smiling man (Pete Davidson, playing band manager Tom Zutaut) who has just been cuckolded by Vince Neil. That’s the level of insight you’re in for here.
“Man, I love strippers (instantly vomits on a stripper’s back)” is another highlight in The Dirt’s respect for women.
As with Bohemian, this is a vanity project produced by the band and made for the band’s fans. So, there are no rocks turned over which would make the band members uncomfortable. Their most public spats and controversies are included out of obligation, but the terrible shit their film counterparts do pales in comparison to some of the exploits spelled out in the oral history book The Dirt: Confessions of the World’s Most Notorious Rock Band or the various legal issues they’ve faced over the years.
The one vaguely interesting conceit of the piece is to co-opt the Jersey Boys format and tell an alternating point of view account of the band’s rise, fall, and sort, kinda rise again. So, Nikki (Douglas Booth), Tommy (Machine Gun Kelly), Vince (Daniel Webber), and Mick (Game of Thrones‘ Iwan Rheon) all take turns narrating the story, often turning to the camera and breaking the fourth wall in the process.
Not surprisingly from such a sub-VH1 Original Movie affair, this conceit yields little in the way of actual character insight. Mostly, it just serves to break up the tedium of yet another cliche-ridden music biopic, one which treats history as a mere nuisance and critical engagement as voluntary.
In The Dirt’s defense, the Motley Crue story – a group of underdogs from the Sunset Strip hit it big, immediately start fucking and snorting their way across the world, eventually endure tragedy and in-fighting, and finally come back to hit the nostalgia circuit – has enough twists to hold your attention. Vince Neil, especially, has a more tortured backstory than most people realize.
However, the band members mostly come off as despicable people doing despicable things and playing mediocre songs. So when their story hits its inevitable dark turn it’s hard to truly care, especially since Tremaine stages sentimental scenes as unintentional self-parodies. For example, you’re not really supposed to laugh at the sight of a father comforting a daughter newly diagnosed with terminal cancer, but in Tremaine’s hands, it plays like a parody of Brian’s Song until you realize they’re being completely sincere.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Thanks to Bohemian Rhapsody, we are about to be overwhelmed by a rush of music biopics/jukebox musicals. In all likelihood, The Dirt will end up a mere footnote in this movement – Netflix’s version of one of those Unauthorized Lifetime Original Movies except it is authorized and proudly R-Rated. Anyone who still longs for the days of hair metal, groupies and enough cocaine and heroin to make Pablo Escobar blush will find plenty to enjoy here. Motley Crue, however, will mostly just be happy if this results in more streaming hits for their songs on Spotify.
RANDOM PARTING THOUGHT
Like those Unauthorized Lifetime pop history movies, part of the fun with The Dirt is simply laughing at the parade of cheap imitations of famous people. However, their version of Ozzy Osbourne (played by Tony Cavalero) is a perfect imitation of 80s Ozzy, who tried to be a mentor to Motley Crue but was too drugged out for it to be effective. Months from now, all anyone will remember about The Dirt is the scene where Ozzy first snorts ants and then urine.