The easy way to look at The Dirt, the new Netflix biopic about 80s shock-rock group Mötley Crüe, is that somebody took one of the most notorious rock acts in the world and made a mostly harmless by-the-numbers biopic about them.
Most of our plucky readership probably understands the biopic formula, but for those who don’t, Patrick H. Willems made the only video you’ll ever need to see on the subject. If you don’t have 35 minutes to spend on watching a video, here’s a quick and dirty version: biopics take the messy life of a person and try to shape it into a neat dramatic arc for easy digestion, which would be fine if a.) the formula wasn’t so overused, with movies like Ray, Walk the Line, Get On Up, Straight Outta Compton, and Bohemian Rhapsody essentially telling the same story with a few differences of varying importance, and b.) if the act of squeezing an entire life into a two hour story didn’t gloss over so many crucial, fascinating details within that life. Point B seems especially prudent in the case of The Dirt; watching it, I felt like you could’ve made at least three movies about the band.
Movie 1 would be about the rise. After the biopic’s standard in media res introductory scene, we meet each band member starting with bassist Nikki Sixx (Douglas Booth), who at a young age distances himself from his mother (Kathryn Morris) and the multiple abusive stepfathers she keeps bringing into their home. In contrast to Sixx, drummer Tommy Lee (Colson Baker, aka Machine Gun Kelly) had a happy and supportive home life and a deep love of hard rock. Guitarist Mick Mars (Iwan Rheon) is an old man compared to these kids, but he’s got a degenerative bone disease that pushes him to go harder than most dudes half his age. Rounding out the group is lead singer Vince Neil (Daniel Webber), a high school buddy of Tommy’s who joins up as a favor to his friend and is really just in it to get laid. Within each other, these four dudes find a groove together and start tearing up the Sunset Strip until a record label (represented here by Pete Davidson at his adorkable best) inevitably takes notice and pulls them into the spotlight. Movie 2 would be about the fall; the band tearing itself apart as the weight of their excessive lifestyle starts to take a toll on them, culminating in Sixx’s heroin overdose. Movie 3 would be about the band’s emergence from rehab as the cultural shift to grunge was right around the corner, and their struggle to stay invested in the music and each other now that everything that made it fun has been taken away from them.
Any one of these stories would be bangers on their own; when you relegate each of them to a single act of a larger story that’s squeezed into an hour and 48 minutes, things start feeling rushed and emotional beats don’t land like they should. The first arena gig for these boys should feel like a big, triumphant moment. Without a good buildup to that moment, however—without a sense of the evolution and trial-and-error it took to get to that point—it’s just kinda there. A lot of such moments are just kinda there, undermining a lot of the film’s dramatic power.
Despite all that, the movie has a lot going for it, starting with a low-key self-awareness that the core story being told is a story we’re all familiar with. This is Jeff Tremaine’s first full narrative feature after something of a soft start with Bad Grandpa. He ends up being an inspired pick, clearly believing in the story he’s telling without necessarily believing it’s a capital-I Important one. Without the pretension that makes many of these biopics insufferable and more vulnerable to scrutiny (the fact that it only briefly acknowledges Tommy Lee’s issues with domestic violence and flat out ignores Vince Neil’s own issues with assaulting women seems a little less questionable when it’s so clearly not going for Oscars), Tremaine is free to make himself comfortable within the well-worn formula and focus on the things he does best. His experience on Jackass and its many spinoffs gives him an intrinsic understanding of the appeal of excess and bad behavior and the power of brotherhood and found family. To that effect, his four leads have impeccable chemistry, allowing the film to partially compensate for its lack of appropriate breathing room and ultimately stick the landing. The Dirt may be a safe story about a dangerous band, but it’s still a well-told and engaging one.
Watch the trailer here:
Image courtesy of Netflix
Directed by Jeff Tremaine
Screenplay by Rich Wilkes and Amanda Adelson, from the book by Tommy Lee, Mick Mars, Vince Neil, and Nikki Sixx, with Neil Strauss
Produced by Julie Yorn, Erik Olsen, Allen Kovac
Starring Douglas Booth, Iwan Rheon, Colson Baker, Daniel Webber, Pete Davidson, David Costabile
Release Date: March 22, 2019
Running Time: 108 minutes