There’s a scene about 30 minutes into The Dirt, the biopic loosely adapted from the Mötley Crüe memoir of the same name, that proves unintentionally illuminating. After an A&R rep from Elektra Records meets the band at infamous L.A. hotspot the Rainbow Room (where he’s startled to discover there’s a woman under the table offering blowjobs to any guy who sits down with the band, sight unseen) and signs them to a five-album deal, the film cuts back to the group excitedly partying the night away, voice-over narration from band member Nikki Sixx recalling how the deal led to the group’s only real goal: “Better drugs and bigger parties.” “Look at this place!” Sixx’s narrator marvels. “Everybody wanted to party with us.” The irony to a sane viewer is overpowering: It looks like the world’s saddest wannabe orgy, a dirty and poorly lit one-bedroom apartment on the Sunset Strip where a bunch of leather-clad grown men and their willing sexual conquests act like attendees at the world’s most juvenile frat kegger. And in the eyes of the band, these were the glory days. Yikes.
There’s a reason The Dirt’s source material is considered the ne plus ultra of over-the-top rock-star nincompoopery. It’s impossible to reproduce the band’s outsized behavior—and if you tried, you’d probably die immediately. The members drugged, drank, and fucked their way through roughly a decade of rock ’n’ roll excess that would almost put Ozzy Osbourne to shame. (Not quite, though: One of the book’s most famous anecdotes, faithfully depicted in the film, shows the Madman warning the boys about knowing when to pull back, right before he snorts a line of live ants and laps up his own urine.) And even with some of the more horrifying stories struck from the cinematic record, the film is unsparing in its portrayal of the destruction left in the wake of the bad boys of hair metal. Or rather, mostly unsparing—and that’s part of the problem.
There’s a blunt-force fascination to The Dirt, compiling as it does a greatest-hits assemblage of the absurdity of the lives and personalities of the four members of Mötley Crüe. From the moment Tommy Lee (Colson Baker, a.k.a. Machine Gun Kelly) first meets bassist Nikki Sixx (Douglas Booth) to start a new band, and they bring in dour but ace guitarist Mick Mars (Game Of Thrones’ Iwan Rheon) and pretty-boy wailer Vince Neil (Daniel Webber), the frenetic rags-to-riches tale of their rise and kinda fall rarely lets up, the adrenaline-paced nature of the story a fitting match for the metric tons of cocaine flying up everyone’s noses. You know subtlety isn’t a concern when a movie opens with Lee going down on a woman in the middle of a house party in order to cause her ejaculate to shoot across the room to the delight of drunken onlookers. That’s what the movie wants to be, in a repellent nutshell: A cavalcade of “dear god, that’s too much” sequences from which you can’t look away, simply by virtue of sheer outrageousness. It’s bro-culture bravado cranked to 11.
The problem is that the movie thinks it can neatly separate the things it wants you to be appalled by and what it chalks up to boys-will-be-boys impishness. After that A&R rep (an uneven Pete Davidson playing wide-eyed straight man) signs them, the touring montages begin. The group is portrayed as conquering rock saviors onstage (the movie has the temerity to imply Mötley Crüe were playing some kind of unbelievable new music no one had ever heard before), and unrestrained wildmen offstage, commitment to the pursuit of pure hedonism their Northern star. But the childish simplicity of this very-much-authorized account only points an accusatory finger when it thinks one is deserved: Lee hitting his fiancee, Sixx descending into heroin use, a drunken Neil causing the car wreck that killed Hanoi Rocks drummer Nicholas “Razzle” Dingley. At these moments, the film stops dead in its tracks, as though to say, “Okay, games faces everyone, serious things are happening now.” Yet the misogynist view of women (almost no woman gets a name, save for more famous figures like Lee’s spouse Heather Locklear) and some genuinely reprehensible assholery gets laughed away with an “ain’t we scamps?” attitude that only a Tucker Max-loving troglodyte could find endearing.
But even with the absurdist spectacle making for occasionally fun viewing, what has room to rise and fall in a 400-plus page book gets condensed into trite moralizing in 108 minutes. Already buffoonish men are reduced to cartoons—Lee the amiable dimwit, Sixx the tortured alpha male, Mars the tragic hardass, etc.—and any evidence of three-dimensional humanity is flattened by the steamroller of predictable human-drama beats. Sixx’s heroin addiction scenes look like they were stitched in from an after-school special about the dangers of drug use, complete with woozy out-of-his-head sequences set to a generic synth thrum. The moment that fares worst is one that should serve as a wrenching tonic (and does, in the book): The shocking death of Neil’s four-year-old daughter from cancer. Abruptly introduced and quickly dispensed with, what should be a moment of harrowing pathos and empathetic humanism instead plays like the crassest of emotional button pushing, exploitative and painfully unearned. When the movie has already repeatedly broken the fourth wall—and even admitted things didn’t happen quite the way they’re presented, but have instead been rejiggered for simplicity’s sake—it would take a Danny-Boyle-making-Trainspotting level of artistry to balance these tones, and director Jeff Tremaine (Bad Grandpa, the Jackass movies) isn’t up to the task.
Given their participation, it’s fascinating to see how the members of the band have crafted their cinematic doppelgängers. The film wants them to come across as flawed but likable human beings who learn and grow over the course of the narrative, and not as the unbelievably obnoxious assholes frozen in an eternal arrested development they so clearly are. (Baker comes closest to making his Tommy Lee a living, breathing human.) This isn’t meant as a moralizing scold—far better biopics have been made about far worse people, and good movies can have shitty ideologies—but simply to highlight the disparity between what the movie thinks is worth celebrating about Mötley Crüe, and what it actually conveys. Even leaving aside Sixx’s efforts to distance himself from a confession of rape in the book he’s now suggesting never happened, this is a tale of clueless jerks who can’t grasp the distinction between the entertaining nature of rock-star abandon and the distasteful practices of loutish shitheads. The movie flows unquestioningly from one to the other, from fun to foul, which may just be the point, but not in the way it’s intended. “We were a gang—a gang of fucking idiots,” Sixx says early on, wanting to let you know that, hey, not to worry, they’re in on the joke, they know this is fucked up. If only it could be half as fun as Mötley Crüe thinks it is.