The Pitch: The pervy old uncle of rock autobiographies, 2000’s The Dirt charts the exploits of glam-metal antiheroes Mötley Crüe. Heroin overdoses, a Hoover Dam’s worth of alcohol, vehicular manslaughter, and lots and lots of disgusting sex are all common threads in a series of first-person interviews with writer Neil Strauss. After getting stuck in development hell for more than a decade, the film adaptation has finally come to fruition as a Netflix original.
Generation Swine: At the fingertips of screenwriters Amanda Adelson and Jeff Kapinos (and probably the band themselves, as they co-produced), the film hits upon most of the big-picture, better-known touchstones of Crüe lore, good and bad. Bassist Nikki Sixx (Douglas Booth) ODs on heroin and is declared dead for a few minutes, the inspiration behind the band’s hit “Kickstart My Heart”; drummer Tommy Lee (Machine Gun Kelly) wigs out on his customized drum rollercoaster; Mick Mars (Iwan Rheon) battles alcoholism and anklyosing spondylitis; and singer Vince Neil (Daniel Webber) accidentally kills Hanoi Rocks drummer Nicholas “Razzle” Dingley while driving drunk.
And while the film doesn’t exactly depict Mötley Crüe as superheroes, it does notably leave out some of the key lower points in their narrative — namely their degradation of women. While the script never shies away from the graphic sexuality of the time, it never fully engages with how abusive and horrible the band spent their careers being to the opposite sex. The notorious phone incident with a groupie is nowhere to be found, and no, the story doesn’t even begin to tangle with Sixx’s admission that he and Lee “pretty much” raped another groupie by tricking her into having intercourse with them both in a dark closet. Lee’s marriage to Pamela Anderson and the infamous sex tape and domestic abuse scandal that followed are also curiously absent.
This isn’t to say that there’s much necessity for a rock biopic rife with scenes of sexual abuse and assault. However, The Dirt never bothers to ask any hard questions when it comes to the actual repentance (if any) of its rock star protagonists. The conversation around that kind of behavior is a lot different now than it was even two years ago, let alone a few decades back. But rather than taking a modern vantage as an opportunity for evolution or at least subversion, the script flat-out ignores any aspects of the Crüe’s life that might be harder for the public to accept.
Most of all, the film never asks its characters — and thus their real-life counterparts — to fully examine their life decisions, save for a heartbreaking hospital scene with Neil and his daughter, who died of cancer at four. The surface-level filmmaking does the biggest disservice of all to guitarist Mick Mars, whose only defining traits are his two illnesses. He never gets much to do, aside from going to the doctor and getting loaded in order to cope with his deteriorating health.
(Ranking: Every Motley Crüe Album from Worst to Best)
Saints Of Los Angeles: To be fair, Mötley Crüe and Strauss’ book never ventured into fully self-aware remorse in the first place. But across 431 pages, the hedonism becomes so effectively exhausting that you can’t help but view it as a cautionary tale. Reading it is like soldiering through the Blood Meridian of rock bios, the ugly-yet-fascinating cycle of sex and violence eventually just curdling into fatigue. And that was the (perhaps unintentional) message: Don’t be like these guys. Or, at the very least, that their lifestyle isn’t worth the toll taken on one’s health, mind, and soul.
The movie, on the other hand, just gives you the band’s greatest hits when it comes to past misdeeds; enough to check its based-on-a-true-story boxes, but nowhere near enough to delve into any kind of meaningful morality — accidental or otherwise. At the end of the day, this is the Mötley Crüe show, and they really want you to think they’re the coolest, that any darkness and mistreatment can be forgiven in light of how awesome and wild the ride on the drum rollercoaster has been.
(Read: Mötley Crüe unveil two more new songs from the soundtrack to The Dirt: Stream)
Theatre of Pain: The film’s defanging also lies in the direction. On paper, Jeff Tremaine seems like the perfect guy to helm a movie about a bunch of men behaving badly, as he already has decades of experience capturing the real-life grime of Jackass, which he co-created. Despite that franchise’s general love of silliness, its shows and films have always felt nasty and authentic due to the raw approach: the handheld cameras, the refusal to shy away from unwieldy closeups and bodily fluids.
A similarly documentary-minded approach could have worked for The Dirt, but instead the camera often remains static, rendering what should be an iconic scene involving Ozzy Osbourne (Tony Cavalero) completely flat. The graphic nature of the event is in place — there are ants, there’s a popsicle, and we do in fact see him snorting said ants off said popsicle — but it’s captured with such low energy that Steve-O funneling a beer into his own ass feels far more gritty and dangerous.
The production design doesn’t help, either. Like Bohemian Rhapsody before it, every outfit and decoration looks right off the costume rack or fresh out of the scene shop. Nothing feels lived-in. Even though the actors serviceably find what charisma they can in the shallow text, it’s hard to be believable under bad wigs, spandex, and a surface-level approach.
The Verdict: Any film adaptation of The Dirt should feel epic in its scumminess — to the point where you less relish the band’s lifestyle than feel like you need a shower after watching it. But its lack of energy, depth, and pure volume are, at the movie’s best, sanitized. Despite the long wait, The Dirt is nothing more than karaöke Crüe.
Where’s It Playing? Streaming on Netflix.