Motley Crue have a debaucherous history that lends itself great to film, if only The Dirt knew how to make it work for a 2019 audience.
Motley Crue’s antics during their heyday are hardly a secret to the general public, particularly after the release of their autobiography The Dirt, in 2001. The book version of The Dirt leaves little to the imagination, chronicling each band member’s debauchery in sordid detail. What you’re left with are depictions of men who were, at best, destructively stupid, and at worst, dangerously abusive. Their lives were so eventful, to put it mildly, it’s hardly a surprise that it got a film adaptation.
The movie version of The Dirt has been in development for over 10 years. In that time, society’s tolerance for misogyny has decreased, making way for women to finally start feeling confident and safe enough to express the injustices and abuse they’ve endured, and continue to endure. If Motley Crue’s primetime had been during our current era of the MeToo movement, it’s highly likely they wouldn’t have gotten away with as much as they did. Yet for some reason, Netflix decided that making a movie about the exploits of abusive men was a good idea.
The thing is though, The Dirt could have been the perfect film for 2019. In the right hands, there’s a way to take Motley Crue’s story of depravity and use it as a way to show how that behavior is, and never was, acceptable or glamorous. Unfortunately, The Dirt is never bold enough to make that statement. Its attempt to balance the band’s salacious lifestyle with sympathetic justifications for said lifestyle makes it feel completely tone deaf to society, and filmmaking’s, forward progress.
There have been countless films that subscribe to the ‘sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll’ theme. It’s hardly a new or fresh genre of storytelling. How many times have we seen womanizing men have drug and/or alcohol addictions who are a part of some kind of group, whether literally a rock band, or some other male-oriented organization? Portraying Motley Crue’s story this way may be accurate, but it’s boring and tasteless. The Dirt had the opportunity to tell a fresher perspective of this dated storyline, and how unglamorous that lifestyle really is, and how damaging it can be. Instead we’re mostly left with surface level romp that brushes aside any attempt to go deeper.
As gratuitous as The Dirt is, it actually leaves out a lot of Motley Crue’s more hedonistic tendencies. Of course, a film can only be so long, and there’s only so much you can fit in it, but what makes Motley Crue’s story unique is how far they went. By leaving out some of the worst parts, by glossing over the parts that did make it in the film, The Dirt just feels like any other movie of this ilk. Why not use their story as a cautionary tale? Use it to say, ‘Look at how awful these guys were, and how much they screwed up themselves and the people around them. Is that really a life you want to emulate?’
The biggest problem by not taking The Dirt further into the band’s destructive patterns is that there don’t appear to be consequences for the actions we do see. Tommy Lee hits his girlfriend one time, has a moment of feeling bad, and then it’s never mentioned again. Vince Neil kills his friend in a drunk driving incident, and is apparently relatively well-behaved for the rest of the film.
Nikki Sixx’s battle with addiction is done quite well though. There’s his infamous ‘death’ after overdosing, but perhaps more importantly, it shows the difficulty of quitting. Upon coming home after surviving the overdose, Nikki immediately shoots up again. Dying isn’t enough to make him quit. It’s certainly a dark plot line of The Dirt, but its honesty makes it the most effective parts of the film.
While The Dirt didn’t go far enough in showing the worst parts of Motley Crue, it also didn’t go far enough to call them out for their misdeeds. There’s a scene when the band sits poolside, discussing the amount of girls they’ve had sex with. Mick Mars, the ‘old man’ and clear ‘sane’ one of the group, gives a small speech about respecting women too much for that behaviour. It’s a half-hearted attempt to try and show the audience that these guys aren’t great, and ultimately isn’t even effective. The line comes out feeling like a joke without any kind of sincerity.
For some reason, The Dirt also feels the need to try and make you feel sympathetic to Motley Crue, in an attempt to justify their destructive behavior. Nikki had a neglectful mother and a father who left them, Vince was a ‘good dad,’ Tommy was a ‘hopeless romantic.’ Is that supposed to be enough to make you feel sorry for them? They’re grown men who repeatedly make their own bad choices. Why should we feel bad for them?
These issues would be a lot easier to resolve had the film been from the perspective of people other than Motley Crue. It’s difficult to show self-reflection or remorse from these men during a time when they weren’t self-reflective or remorseful of their actions. But even in telling the story from the perspective of Motley Crue, there isn’t a justifiable reason as to why they should be portrayed as ‘heroes.’
The Dirt follows a formulaic arc of down-and-out misfits who finally get the fame they seek, at the expense of losing themselves along the way, only to finally be redeemed by the film’s end. Except none of that is earned. Their lives weren’t that bad prior to forming the band; aside from Nikki’s drug addiction, they were never really ‘down and out,’ just a bunch of drunk idiots throwing ragers; and the band’s falling out is so quick that the resulting reunion doesn’t feel triumphant. Had they been the antiheroes of their own story, then we might have had a film of substance.
There are some fun moments in The Dirt. The ’24 hours of Tommy Lee’ sequence is certainly entertaining, and Iwan Rheon’s deadpan Mick Mars is a consistent delight. No doubt fans of Motley Crue’s music will find this film worth a watch, but it’s hardly going to win over anyone else. If it weren’t for the fact that this film is about Motley Crue, it’d be entirely forgettable.
There was an opportunity here to make a statement about the misogyny of the rock scene in the ’80s, and to deglamorize the worst parts of the rock and roll lifestyle. Instead, The Dirt makes destructive men look like kids who had a little too much fun. How innovative.