Review by David Baldwin
My exposure to Mötley Crüe has been limited at best. I played their songs in Rock Band and Guitar Hero. I was briefly obsessed with “Kickstart My Heart” after hearing it during the trailer for the all but completely forgotten Clive Owen romp Shoot ‘Em Up (do you remember that movie? I own in on DVD and remember literally nothing besides Owen’s character liked to chew carrots like Bugs Bunny and used one to stab a guy). A girl I was intrigued with had a grotesque image of a two-faced demon from Nikki Sixx’s book The Heroin Diaries tattooed on her hip. That’s pretty much where my knowledge begins and ends.
Oh, and I watched Tommy Lee and Pamela Anderson’s sex tape when I was a teenager, as you do.
So when it came time to watch The Dirt, I was at a bit of a loss. Do I wade in as blind as possible or do I look up some of the stories? Do I just trust that the filmmakers will be honest in their portrayals? And if they aren’t, will the movie and music be entertaining enough for me to completely look past it?
Without going into too far in-depth, The Dirt tells the story of the early days of Mötley Crüe and the four misfits — Nikki Six (Douglas Booth), Tommy Lee (Machine Gun Kelly), Vince Neil (Daniel Webber) and Mick Mars (Iwan Rheon) — who came together to create the notoriously legendary band, and all the drinking, drugs, women, partying and hijinx that happened along the way.
The Dirt is definitely not for everyone. The opening scene introduces all the players in rapid succession as they all act like idiots at a party in their shared apartment. It’s quick and slickly cut, and ends with Tommy Lee’s sexual conquest theatrically squirting in the middle of a room full of people. And from that moment on, you’re either on board with how ridiculous this movie is going to be or you have your immediate chance to turn it off and start watching something else on Netflix.
I kept watching, and the film does indeed get more obnoxious, rude and disgusting from there. It really is the personification of 1980’s excess. Sure there are things that have been embellished, moments that are too wild to be true, and other moments that have been clearly downplayed. The film has a nasty habit of treating women like disposable trophies — which might be a bit too icky in the post #MeToo era — but it also portrays each and every member of the group as selfish jerks and complete fucking assholes who did whatever they want, consequences be damned. Surface level consequences which included but were not limited to overdosing and vehicular manslaughter.
As I watched, I kept comparing the film to Bohemian Rhapsody, the Oscar-winning film about Queen and Freddie Mercury. There’s a very specific scene about halfway through that film where Mercury is hosting an elaborate party where everyone is drinking and doing drugs — himself included. He speaks to his bandmates and their wives who are sitting together away from everyone, decidedly not having as much fun as Freddie. He wants them to have more fun, but they relent and say they need to go home early to see their kids. He’s dumbstruck and doesn’t understand why none of his friends want to have as much fun as he is having. I probably have not done justice to the whole scene, but it always stood out in my mind as a blatantly doctored moment where the still-living members of the band wanted to be portrayed in a good light and not have the filmmakers tell the truth.
I mention this scene because in that respect, and in the immediate aftermath of the twisted nightmare Bohemian Rhapsody became for everyone who writes and follows movies religiously, The Dirt feels refreshing and honest. It does not play games and it shows these characters for who they really were, warts and all. Yes, I have no doubt it cut specific moments out that would have been even more painfully honest (Pamela Anderson for one — only gets a brief mention near the end of the film and does not even appear on-screen). But these characters are deeply unlikable and the film portrays them as such — and that just does not happen in musical biopics. So I will give the film credit for that.
And I will give the film credit for being chaotically entertaining. Director Jeff Tremaine also worked on the Jackass films, and he seems like a perfect fit for a ludicrous story like this. He keeps the film breezy and it practically flies through its 107-minute running time with no problem at all. Tremaine does not leave much room for depth, introspection or nuance and has a bad habit of glorifying the worst of the band’s behaviours, but again, this is the director of the Jackass movies.
I think my biggest issue with The Dirt is in its narration and fourth wall breaking. Each member of the band takes turns narrating the film and their part in the chaos. It’s fun for the first little bit, but gets increasingly more annoying as it goes on — especially when the film cannot decide the tense to use. Are they narrating as the action is happening, or are they reflecting on a past event? It changes often, sometimes within the exact same scene and is far from consistent. And the film seems to love having characters break the fourth wall to tell the viewer some sort of twisted insight that is often not quite needed and adds very little to the film (although I will say it was amusing to see them address why a specific character is not part of the film even though they were there in real life).
In the end, The Dirt is entertaining enough for a rainy afternoon if you can look past its troubling faults. I appreciated the honesty and I enjoyed how Tremaine kept the film moving at all times. I wish there was a bit more depth and more moments for the actors to really express themselves. But for what it is, it’s trashy fun — and if you are anything like me, you will likely be listening to Mötley Crüe on Spotify for weeks on end after watching it.