Those who know me will know I’m a pretty big metalhead. I used to play bass guitar in the hallways in high school and wear a Metallica shirt under my uniform. I never got into Mötley Crüe until college, however, despite discovering them in 2005 on the soundtrack to Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland. Then I began to learn how excessive their lifestyle was. That lifestyle is front and center in the new Netflix movie about the band called The Dirt, based on the book of the same name written by the band and Neil Strauss. The movie, like the book, chronicles the rise and fall of the so-called “most notorious rock band” but how does all that debauchery translate to film?
The film is admittedly very rough. There are certainly highlights of the film, from its soundtrack to its ability to capture a certain space and time so well, in this case, Sunset Boulevard in the 80s. The performances are mixed, ranging from great to forgettable. Then there’s the excess and the partying, that definitely passes insanity. Sometimes though, the shenanigan scenes feel like they’re there more to shock and disgust, and made me think of a Jackass skit. That’s likely because the director of his biopic, Jeff Tremaine, was the co-creator of that popular TV series, which glorified stupidity and bad behaviour. The Dirt takes that mentality and cranks the volume up so loud that the amps broke.
The film stars Douglas Booth (The Riot Club, The Limehouse Golem) as the band’s founding member and bassist, Nikki Sixx. Born Frank Feranna Jr, he would go on to get his own mother arrested by cutting his own wrists and blaming her. Years later and the runaway troublemaker is looking to start a new band. Jamming in a dingy apartment in Los Angeles, he works on writing material with Tommy Lee (Colson Baker, a.k.a Machine Gun Kelly), a scrawny drummer from a good home. Game of Thrones’ Iwan Rhedon steps in as Mick Mars, the “older” member of a band who at least has some self-respect and refuses to partake in the womanizing and much of the debauchery of the band, likely due to his diagnosis of ankylosing spondylitis. But the band had no singer, so they recruit Tommy’s high school pal Vince Neil (Daniel Webber, 11.22.63), who currently has a good thing going on fronting a cover band. It isn’t long before they rally together and form Mötley Crüe with the sole ambition to shock and awe, unlike anyone before them.
And shock and awe they will. I felt like I needed a shower after watching this movie. Imagine the most excessive and hedonic acts you can think of and crank it up to 100 out of a maximum of 10. This is the most difficult part to critique about this movie, as the band was known for trashing hotel rooms, spending thousands of dollars of drugs a day, getting into a bar fight on their first show and participating in all manner of debaucherous and hedonistic behaviour with women. A scene, that felt like it was there just to show off the insanity of the lifestyle, features Ozzy Osborne (Tony Cavalero, nailing the voice) snorting ants and licking urine. What’s the point of this scene other than to make the viewer feel disgusted? Well, seeing as the event is recorded in their book, it makes it an event that happened and while it serves no purpose to the plot, it’s meant to dehumanize these characters. The further the movie goes on, the less you feel like rooting for them. Until they hit rock bottom of course, and even then, you have to question if you should be. For the record though, Ozzy has no memory of ever snorting ants, but considering his drug-laced antics in the 80s, one might imagine his memory is a bit hazy.
Watching off of their antics, however, can be exhausting to watch and after a while, it does get repetitive and stale. In a weird move, either to highlight how high they were or just for the sake of making a more narratively pleasing movie, some of the characters break the fourth wall (this movie is narrated) and talk to the audience directly, informing them that what’s actually happening on screen didn’t actually happen this way, making us question why we’re watching this version of events. The film also doesn’t have too much behind the scenes moments showcasing how certain songs were written, save for a brief look at “Live Wire“, which goes from fast to faster and then perfected on the second take, and a brief scene in the booth during the recording of “Same ol’ Situation”, which sees Sixx directing Vince on vocal delivery, only to have Vince nail it on the second try. This is a shame because many of Mötley Crüe’s songs are straight up rock’n’ roll classics and seeing the band working on some of those jams would’ve been a treat. I wish the movie put more emphasis on the music. For comparison, check out this clip from the critically acclaimed Straight Outta Compton.
Of course, things go from bad to worse for the band. Nikki Sixx ends up battling with heroin, Tommy with infidelity and Vince ends up having the most gut-wrenching arc when a tragedy at home almost destroys him. And that’s after he killed someone in vehicular manslaughter. Mick Mars is kinda just there, being weird, emo and ghostly.
The performances are hit and miss as well, with Booth nailing Nikki Sixx. His battle with heroin addiction is done superbly and he’s easily the highlight of the movie. But Baker, a musician before being an actor, has some rough line delivery some as Tommy. At least it looks like he’s having fun with the role. Daniel Webber has ups and downs as Vince, who is stuck lip-syncing the real songs but gets to handle some of the more human moments when it comes to dealing with his daughter. Iwan does a good job as Mick while simultaneously doing not much. I would’ve liked to have gotten to know him more and how he coped with his condition and why he was more content drinking alone in a corner than party it up with his bandmates. The film, produced by the band, thankfully doesn’t shy away from how horrible they were in the past and how many demons they faced later on. However, whenever something major like death, overdose or Tommy assaulting his finance happens, the script pushes it aside rather quickly. This is a huge problem for the little characterization these characters get. Even minor moments, such as naming the band are presented quickly.
The movie is pretty cookie cutter in its formula. If you’ve seen any rock biopic lately (looking at you Bohemian Rhapsody) then you’ll be familiar with this poor band rising through the ranks only to fall apart at the height of their fame only to rise again story. It feels very…Wikipedia or VH1. For a movie that’s not shy to get crazy, it does play it very safe narratively. Nikki Sixx stated this about making the film in 2015:
“Anybody can make a sh*tty rock movie. We don’t want to do that. A lot of people don’t understand rock music and the rock’n’roll lifestyle. It’s not just sex, drugs and car crashes. Those things happen-and, in our case, more than usual. But what’s at the core of it all is the creativity and the personal relationships between each band member. […] Any of the great movies, whether it’s Walk the Line or Ray, they got the music right and the personalities right.”
And that may be true for The Dirt, but it does it as such a base level that it comes nowhere near the quality of two movies Sixx himself referenced. I will say that the film’s first act is actually strong but the crazier and bigger they get, the less personal the story becomes as the movie races through the years. For comparison, Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street rivals The Dirt in terms of how obscene it got but took three hours to build up the characters and invest you in the story. When big moments happened Wolf, the movie had time to explore it. The Dirt’s biggest problem is that it didn’t take time to properly explore the relationships and personal battles each member faced. Perhaps this would have benefited by being a TV mini-series, which each episode focusing on the time around one of their albums.
There was a lot of potential here, but turning decades of bad decisions and releasing some killer tracks at the same time deserved more than an hour and forty minutes of screentime. If you wanted to see a riveting character study about seriously messed up individuals, you won’t find it here. But if you’re okay with watching a shallow portrait of Sunset Boulevard in the 80s, know your Rainbow Bar and Grills from your Whiskey a Go Gos and can get a kick out of rocking out to some of the music in 80s hair metal, then you may enjoy this passively. Douglas Booth shines as Nikki Sixx but nothing much else stands out. For a more complete look at the band, maybe read the book instead. Before you go, why not check out our review of the action flick Triple Threat and check out who will be at the Montreal Comiccon. Oh, and be sure to enter our Avengers: Endgame contest!
Nikki Sixx quote source: Classic Rock magazine, page 49.