Netflix's Motley Crue Biopic 'The Dirt': Review
Mötley Crüe was such an over-the-top musical spectacle whose members had so many trials and tribulations, it’s fitting that it should have a movie made about their lives. Based on the group’s 2001 autobiography, The Dirt: Confessions of the World’s Most Notorious Rock Band, which they co-authored with Neil Strauss, the film (debuting on Netflix on Friday) follows the infamous Los Angeles glam-rock band from its ragtag beginnings through its rise to chaotic success, punctuated by the destruction the foursome brought upon themselves and others.
The Jeff Tremaine-directed feature offers a charismatic young cast, with Douglas Booth as bassist Nikki Sixx, Iwan Rheon as guitarist Mick Mars, Colson Baker (aka rapper Machine Gun Kelly) as drummer Tommy Lee and Daniel Webber as singer Vince Neil. Because Mötley Crüe’s members are all individual celebrities -- never anyone’s critical darling, the band was more like a debauched Beatles -- casting was especially important, and the result looks and feels authentic, with Baker and Webber especially delivering notable performances.
Though it plays a bit like an X-rated Behind the Music, the picture has its flaws (like the characters it spotlights). The Dirt has a freewheeling style, similar to Adam McKay’s direction of The Big Short and Vice, as it jumps around from narrator to narrator and occasionally breaks the fourth wall. (Tremaine also directed the Jackass movies.) This mimics the narrative style of the source material but is a disappointing aspect of the film: The limits of its running time mean certain things were changed, rearranged or missing. The movie omits early co-manager Doug Thaler; barely acknowledges John Corabi, who briefly replaced Neil in the ’90s; and doesn’t touch the band’s albums or continued problems after Neil returned. Women are basically set decorations. And because the viewer never sees the damage the band caused to others, the fact that it's self-destructive or trashes hotels softens any real judgment of its behavior. The guys come off as nice-but-troubled party dudes who just want to play rock music, get high and bang chicks.
The film begins with a dark glimpse into the troubled youth of Sixx and follows him as he moves to LA to pursue his rock-star dream. We then meet Lee, a lovable, happy-go-lucky kid from a stable middle-class family who shares Sixx’s ambition. So after a meet-cute moment in a diner, Sixx and Lee start putting an act together that’s “something nobody’s ever seen before.”
We’re introduced to Mars when he auditions and, though he’s older than Sixx and Lee, his stoic pragmatism and genuine skill earn him his place in the band. We also briefly glimpse an early diagnosis of his struggle with ankylosing spondylitis, a form of arthritis that typically affects the spine, impairs movement and causes significant pain. (The film nods to Mars’ look in the early ’70s during a consultation with his doctor, alluding to an image of him that circulated after the band became successful.) And, in their (brief) search for a singer, we discover Lee’s high school buddy Neil, a cocky, girl-magnet rock-star-in-waiting doing cover songs at house parties. Soon, they’re rehearsing now-classic Mötley tunes, picking the band’s name, capping off their performance debut by fistfighting their own audience and partying with a hedonism that would leave Caligula speechless.
Pete Davidson appears on scene as Tom Zutaut, the executive who signed the band to Elektra Records, though he’s given very little to do except look shocked. Soon, Mötley is on tour, its rising star illuminating near-endless crazed parties, multitudes of half-naked women and drugs (lots of drugs) in its glow. (There’s a great scene when the quartet meets elder madman Ozzy Osbourne at its hotel pool.) And of course, this is where Mötley threatens to implode. A drunk Neil gets into a car accident that kills Hanoi Rocks drummer Nicholas “Razzle” Dingley, although no mention is made of the serious injuries sustained by the driver and passenger of the other vehicle involved in the crash. (As the result of a plea deal, Neil paid $2.6 million in restitution and spent less than a month in prison.)
The movie seems to fly through significant aspects of Mötley’s personal lives. In the second half, manager Doc McGhee (David Costabile) struggles to keep the band together -- resorting to tactics like handcuffing Lee to his hotel bed to make sure he’s accounted for in time for bus call -- and is later fired. Sixx develops a serious heroin problem and is revived with two shots of adrenaline after an overdose, laying the groundwork for Dr. Feelgood single “Kickstart My Heart”; Lee marries actress Heather Locklear, who leaves him when he cheats; the band continues to wrestle with addiction, then turns it around and gets clean (though this is never fully explored). Needless to say, it doesn’t last: Neil leaves, and new guy Corabi comes and goes so quickly it’s almost like he never appeared. Neil’s daughter Skylar develops stomach cancer and, in The Dirt’s most poignant scene, he struggles to explain to his child why she has to stay in the hospital, knowing she’s going to die. And soon the band is reuniting, and it rocks out into the sunset.
The reckless excess of Mötley’s rock ’n’ roll exploits -- which, during its decade of decadence on the charts, often overshadowed the group -- is a significant part of The Dirt. Despite this, it manages to humanize the band members just enough to encourage sympathy when they hit their various low points. It’s still a light-hearted look at a group that was never that deep to begin with and it’ll never win any points with the #MeToo movement, but if Mötley Crüe is your thing, you won’t be too disappointed. If the film draws big numbers, Netflix would do well to rush a sequel into production to give the world the rest of The Dirt.