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Review: The Dirt Doesn’t Fulfill the Self-Flattering Promise of Its Title

The film is at least a gleefully nasty piece of myth-cementing jukebox hokum.

The Dirt
Photo: Netflix

Rock n’ roll movies offer up sin, music, and redemptive platitudes that allow us to feel virtuous after we’ve initially been encouraged to revel in the lure of rockers’ vices, which is the true reason for this subgenre’s existence. The recent Bohemian Rhapsody didn’t get the formula quite right, stinting on Queen’s excess and bad behavior and foregrounding the pious self-actualization that seems to be required of nearly every contemporary pop film. By contrast, Jeff Tremaine’s Mötley Crüe biopic The Dirt is a somewhat pleasant surprise—a gleefully nasty piece of myth-cementing jukebox hokum.

The Dirt opens in 1981, at a point when the members of Mötley Crüe appear to be primarily concerned with living as kamikaze hedonists. Bassist Nikki Sixx (Douglas Booth) narrates the band’s early events, giving the audience the lay of the land while tracking shots prowl a debauched party that’s raging in a small apartment on the Sunset Strip near the Whisky a Go Go. Drummer Tommy Lee (Colson Baker) is going down on a woman in a recliner in the middle of a living room. Lead singer Vince Neil (Daniel Webber) is having sex with someone else’s girlfriend somewhere in the back of the apartment, while lead guitarist Mick Mars (Iwan Rheon) lies in bed, probably recovering from booze and drugs.

This lively, amusing, deliberately tasteless sequence cuts to the heart of the appeal of rock n’ roll movies and particularly of ‘80s-era metal at large. The irony of rock n’ roll is that it revels in a fake rebellion while ultimately gratifying the capitalist system. And the intoxication of ‘80s metal resides in its open ownership of this hypocrisy, as it embraces mercenary superficiality with a fervor that allows the genre to have its cake and eat it too. This bluntness is also fake, of course, a way of keeping rock “dangerous” for a generation that’s bored with the tropes of its parents’ music. At its most raunchily free-form, The Dirt honors this weirdly exhilarating and self-deceiving transaction between audiences and musicians.

Tremaine’s obsession with Mötley Crüe’s antics—his recurring shots of rockers passionlessly screwing groupies, the endless and exhausting close-ups of coke being snorted and Jack Daniels being chugged—have a cathartically naughty pull, especially in our uptight and guilt-ridden era of ongoing, efficient mutual shaming. A few formalist tricks also spruce up the proceedings. Initially emulating Martin Scorsese films like Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street, Tremaine allows various voiceovers to cast doubt on one another, underscoring the contrivances of, in this case, biopics. When Mötley Crüe’s manager, Doc McGhee (David Costabile), is introduced, the action is interrupted so that someone may tell us that, no, this event didn’t happen this way, but that this version plays better dramatically.

These sorts of gimmicks emulate the fake honesty of metal itself, softening our guard for the clichés to come. Occasionally, Tremaine even springs an authentically sensitive moment, such as when Vince gets in the infamous drunken car wreck that resulted in the death of Nicholas “Razzie” Dingley (Max Milner). As Razzie dies, Tremaine lingers on the glowing lights of the other car involved in the accident, which become an oddly beautiful harbinger of death.

But fake honesty only gets one so far. Tellingly, Tremaine doesn’t show the people in the car that Vince hit, who were seriously injured, and he never emphasizes anyone else who was negatively affected by Mötley Crüe’s insane antics. As the novelty of the bad behavior wears thin, one notices other short cuts, like the fact that we rarely get to hear a Mötley Crüe song in its entirety. (The music was one area in which Bohemian Rhapsody was quite generous.)

Like most biopics, The Dirt crams so many events into its narrative as to compromise the sense that these are real characters in the here and now. Marriages, parents, children, and the production of the albums are, with the exception of a few vivid bits, all generically glossed over. The protagonist here is really the rock n’ roll lifestyle, which is a potentially revelatory conceit, but Tremaine doesn’t have the technical chops to dramatize such a diaphanous idea. Lifestyles are also the true antiheroes of Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street, which are much better “rock” movies than any film that’s ever been made about a musician. Scorsese’s fluid style and visceral feel for characters offer both a critique and celebration of excess.

Despite accusations he’s weathered to the contrary, Scorsese also isn’t afraid to confront the exploitation of hedonism. However, for all its sleaze, The Dirt is a kind of insidious hagiography that never risks shaking us off Mötley Crüe’s wavelength, with flattering archetypes and narrative abbreviations in place of characters and arcs. True badasses, or real artists, would be willing to look into the deepest and least flattering recesses of their souls. The Dirt isn’t quite up to fulfilling the self-flattering promise of its title.

Cast: Douglas Booth, Colson Baker, Daniel Webber, Iwan Rheon, Trace Masters, Matthew Underwood, Kathryn Morris, Vince Mattis, David Costabile, Tony Cavalero, Max Milner, Rebekah Graf Director: Jeff Tremaine Screenwriter: Amanda Adelson, Rich Wilkes Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 108 min Rating: TV-MA Year: 2019

“Tell the truth but tell it slant”
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