Early on in The Dirt, Mötley Crüe lead guitarist Mick Mars (Iwan Rheon) turns to the camera. “This didn’t actually happen,” he says of the scene that’s just transpired, which involves the band meeting future manager Doc McGhee (David Costabile) at a house party. “Doc never came to this filthy shithole. We met him at the Santa Monica Civic Center after a show.”
On the one hand, it’s a fleetingly sweet attempt to credit McGhee’s business partner, Doug Thaler, who also helped to manage the band. On the other hand, it’s one of many attempts by the filmmakers to make sure the audience knows that yes, this is just a movie, and no, not everything that happens onscreen is going to be based on the truth. Which is a blessing and a curse for anyone who willingly decides to watch The Dirt on their own time, because it’s a (drug) trip, and not a particularly enjoyable one at that.
Directed by Jackass veteran Jeff Tremaine and co-written by Amanda Adelson and Rich Wilkes, The Dirt is an adaptation of the 2001 book The Dirt: Confessions of the World’s Most Notorious Rock Band. Along with Rheon as Mars, the movie also stars Machine Gun Kelly as Tommy Lee, Douglas Booth as Nikki Sixx, and Daniel Webber as Vince Neil. Toss in Billions veteran Costabile as McGhee and Saturday Night Live staple Pete Davidson as record executive Tom Zutaut, and voilà! You’ve got yourself a testosterone-fueled tribute to cock rock.
The book, which was co-written by the band and New York Times writer Neil Strauss (along with contributions from McGhee, Thaler, Zutaut, and one-time band member John Corabi), has long been considered by most critics as utterly unfilmable. Some of this had to do with the book’s structure, which is by no means linear. The majority of it, however, pertains to the book’s content, which is equal parts autobiography, confessional, and oral history.
That is to say, the members of Mötley Crüe were rather generous with the stories they decided to tell back when the book was first published in 2001. In the wake of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements though, it’s going to be difficult for Netflix and the band to sell this particular single. Earlier this month, Sixx retracted a rape story that he previously told in the book. “I don’t actually recall that story in the book beyond reading it,” he told Rolling Stone. “It’s possibly greatly embellished or [I] made it up. Those words were irresponsible on my part. I am sorry.”
Said story is not depicted in The Dirt, thankfully, but that doesn’t mean the movie won’t be vilified for its other gnarly moments. For starters, the film literally begins with the infamous “Bullwinkle” scene (which I will not describe here, as my editor will cut it) from the book. Though to the band (all of whom serve as producers) and the filmmakers’ credit, they wanted to do this. “We felt it was an important way to start the movie,” Sixx said in another Rolling Stone interview. “We wanted to set the bar really low.” And he wasn’t kidding. The Dirt starts from a very, very low place and almost never leaves it. In fact, it revels in its sunken depths.
Sixx’s comment about possibly embellishing the rape story in the book applies just as readily to the film itself. Mars’ aside about their first meeting with McGhee, which also includes a cameo appearance by Van Halen singer David Lee Roth (Christian Gehring), is an admitted example of this. But not every single one of The Dirt’s exaggerations, like precisely when and how the band came up with the name “Mötley Crüe,” is explicitly pointed out by the film.
This is not to say that The Dirt has to point everything that’s less than truthful out like this. It’s a movie, after all. Rather it becomes a problem when what’s largely used as a cute narrative conceit actually serves to undermine the rest of the story. In other words, if the filmmakers are willing to do this with one or two scenes in particular, then why weren’t they willing to do it with others? And why should the audience trust them?
These problems notwithstanding, The Dirt is a largely serviceable and formulaic musical biopic. It covers the initial formation of the band, the superstardom they endured throughout the waning days of the ‘80s, their tumultuous breakup at the advent of ‘90s grunge, and their subsequent reunion. The outrageous nature of the band’s story is sure to spice up this formula for some, especially those who consider themselves avid fans of Mötley Crüe. Yet the filmmakers’ use of narration from multiple characters (sometimes at the same time) and talking heads (a la the Mars) also helps to liven things up.
As do many of the performances, which are generally enjoyable. Rheon, Booth, Webber, and Costabile are all wonderful actors, and every once in a while, The Dirt gives each of them something to chew on. Both Davidson and the deeply unsettling wig he’s wearing never feels at home in this charade, but Kelly? As the youthful, silly and downright immature Lee, he steals just about every non-serious scene he’s in.
So if Shout at the Devil or Dr. Feelgood vinyls are perched prominently in your record collection, or if your Spotify playlist is chock-full of the band’s greatest hits, then you will probably enjoy The Dirt. You won’t learn anything that you didn’t already know, however, especially if you read the book when it came out 18 years ago, but hey, at least you’ll be entertained. Otherwise, you’re better off watching Bohemian Rhapsody again.
The Dirt is now available to stream on Netflix.