Why 'The Dirt' Was Bound to Self-Destruct: Critic's Take

The Dirt is trash. Mötley Crüe frontman Vince Neil may have wailed to take me into his heart in the band’s signature power ballad, “Home Sweet Home,” but after watching this poorly acted, laughably juvenile Netflix adaptation of his band’s tell-all chronicle of the same name, I’m ready to run in the other direction and take the welcome mat with me. The book is binge-worthy; the movie is cringe-worthy.

Watch all 108 minutes of it, and you’ll learn almost nothing about the men of Mötley Crüe. Neil (Daniel Webber), drummer Tommy Lee (Colson Baker, a.k.a. rapper Machine Gun Kelly), lead guitarist Mick Mars (Iwan Rheon) and bassist Nikki Sixx (Douglas Booth) come as a soulless gang of horny man-boys who wanna rock and get laid, not necessarily in that order. But of course, these poor guys can’t even enjoy the riches of success because of the non-stop touring. And the dark and winding road is hard, man. So many cities that you don’t even know where you are in the morning. Girls loitering backstage, making it difficult to be faithful. Yeah, we’ve all heard “Turn the Page,” all seen the "Wanted Dead or Alive” video. We know.  

We know most of the rest of the story, too: The drinking. The drugs. The self-destruction. The guys are responsible for all of it, though this is hardly evident underneath the frivolous boys-will-be-boys theme here. It’s most glaring when Lee punches his fiancée on a tour bus. See, she had it coming -- not because she fucked Neil before the concert, but because she disparaged his disapproving mom for calling her a groupie. Lee informs her it’s tradition to meet the future mother in law. “Which tradition?” she snipes, “The meeting of the c--t?” Wait, taking that back: The hammy low point is when Pete Davidson, playing an A&R rep in a hideous wig, breaks the fourth wall to inform the audience, “Bottom line is don’t ever leave your girlfriend alone with Mötley Crüe, ever!”  

Copy that. But I’m not here to judge the movie for Mötley Crüe’s bad behavior circa 1985. It would be wildly hypocritical, given that I guard a first-edition copy of its source material, the 2002 book The Dirt (co-penned with Neil Strauss), as if it were written on holy scrolls. The tome’s subhead is Confessions of the World’s Most Notorious Rock Band and that’s no hyperbole: I consider it the most revealing and raw tell-all rock ‘n roll memoir in history. A ground-breaker in the genre, it was perhaps the first time a rock band had given a detailed and truly unflinching account of their professional and personal highs, lows and rock bottoms. They were despicable anti-heroes, to be sure, but I found myself both disgusted by their crude behavior yet empathetic to their problems.

Told from multiple perspectives (including their tour manager and the guy who briefly replaced Neil in the 90s), the book version of The Dirt serves as a living artifact as to how a band can somehow survive an insatiable lifestyle of booze, sex and drugs. Mars had a habit of biting Lee’s nipple. Sixx tried to hook up with Lee’s mom. They were so unruly as an opening act for KISS that Gene Simmons fired them. There are about 148 more examples. Reading it through the lens of 2019, I do have to admit it’s an anti-#MeToo work: The guys treat women like accessories, throwing them away like last year’s eyeliner. Their story is a hedonistic monster, a relic of an era when a hair-metal band could get smashed out of their minds while recording an LP that tops Milli Vanilli and Paula Abdul on the Billboard 200 albums chart.

The one thing the book is not? Adaptable. Juicy as it may be, there was never a real need to snap up the movie rights and film the image of Nikki Sixx humping a girl backstage and doing a line of coke off her bare ass. Mötley Crüe’s journey from joint cockroach-infested apartment to gaudy L.A. mansions is one best served in small chapter-like doses. You need a breath in between Sixx’s near-fatal heroin overdose to the gutting death of Neil’s four-year-old daughter of cancer.

And though it may seem hard to believe if you only watched the movie, the guys are brutally introspective in print. Lee explains his thought process as he shoves then-wife Pamela Anderson. He ends up going to jail for it. She’s MIA here. Lee instead comes off like a dopey waif, cheerfully explaining via voiceover that a typical night of partying ended up with him handcuffed to his bed. But he blacked out every night and couldn’t remember any of it. Ha!

No wonder this movie was in development hell for the better part of a decade. Back in 2006, Neil told a radio show that Christopher Walken, a respectable Oscar winner and a game hard-rock role-player, was set to play Ozzy Osbourne. At various times, Ashton Kutcher and Johnny Knoxville were rumored to play Lee and Sixx, respectively. Val Kilmer, i.e., Jim Morrison himself, was in talks for David Lee Roth. Rich Wilkes, who also penned the low-brow '90s comedies The Jerky Boys and Airheads, took a stab at the screenplay. (He maintains a writing credit.) The best-case scenario was that the mix would have resulted in a more over-the-top, more watchable version of '80s rock jukebox musical Rock of Ages.

Two years later, Sixx told Reuters that things weren’t going well with the production, and blamed it Paramount-owned MTV Films, its former producers. “We’re trying to get them out of the way to make this movie that should have been made a long time ago,” he said at the time. “MTV has become bogged down in its own way. It’s a channel that used to be hip.” (As if Snooki were The Dirt’s most challenging obstacle). Sixx, Lee and Neil went on to write their own memoirs. Meanwhile, the band hasn’t charted a top 40 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 since the George H.W. Bush administration, and stopped performing altogether in 2015.  

The Dirt isn’t just an impossible movie in 2019 because of evolving pop culture -- it wasn’t like Freddie Mercury had been a particularly integral part of the 21st century zeitgeist prior to Bohemian Rhapsody winning back at the box office and the Oscars. Mötley Crüe also has a glaring girls, girls, girls problem. In their version of events, these groupies make Penny Lane and her band-aids in Almost Famous seem like elderly church-goers. Blow jobs under a table are an expected regularity.

These women are portrayed as willing and eager participants at the X-rated party -- with the awful exception of Sixx admitting to raping a woman in the book and getting away with it, a story he’s since recanted -- but an issue of both the movie and book versions of The Dirt is its failing to provide any backup via anecdotes from the women themselves. Not that one female can speak for dozens, but in 2019, we need to hear from that blonde who was loitering at Whiskey a Go Go in her own words. The perspective of a few exes could have provided significant illumination as well. Without any first-hand confirmation, there’s no way for The Dirt to peddle a Girls Gone Wild vibe in 2019 without coming across as shockingly tone-deaf -- especially as directed by the dude who made Jackass: The Movie and Bad Grandpa.

The Dirt is currently sitting at a paltry 44 percent score (out of 100) on Rotten Tomatoes, with Emily Yoshida of Vulture sniping, “Its own pointlessness may keep The Dirt from feeling like an actual affront to humanity.” But let’s not play the violin for Neil, Sixx, Lee and Mars. (Well, maybe Mars because his degenerative spinal disease seems painful as hell.) They all grew up to be glamorous, Spandex-wearing rock stars and enjoyed excess of all degrees beyond their wildest imaginations. They got to see a drugged-out Ozzy slurp his own piss. These anecdotes deserve to be passed to down to their grandkids. And to quote a song from the artist with his own biopic coming in May, they’re still standing. The Dirt is simply a cautionary tale of why not every band’s odyssey is a prime candidate for the cinematic treatment. I just want to forget this ever happened. I’m on my way...