The Dirt Celebrates the Soullessness of Mötley Crüe

Netflix’s shiny biopic of the hair-metal band barely tries to understand the destruction it portrays.

An image from 'The Dirt.'

Mötley Crüe is canceled! The latest harrowing #MeToo-era music film highlights the ’80s metal touchstone’s conduct, which was hardly hidden from the public but can now be seen for the abuse it was all along. The lead singer, Vince Neil, killed a man while driving drunk. The drummer, Tommy Lee, is shown punching his first fiancée in the face. Band members harassed innocent bystanders and destroyed their property while habitually treating women like dishrags. Time’s up on the glorification of all that.

Or not. The Dirt, a new Netflix biopic, is co-produced by Mötley Crüe and adapts the 2001 memoir the four bandmates co-wrote with the journalist Neil Strauss. It is a Walk Hard–style mythologizing of their stumble from dive-bar brawls to hydraulics-enabled arenas. That journey generated very little enduring music but did help set a visual template of male excess, a fact that the band members now seem too thick to even appreciate. Aluminum-siding riffs and hernia-evoking growls don’t rule today’s charts, but the star rapper Travis Scott has been at least copying Tommy Lee’s onstage carnival equipment—a fact about which Lee has been raging in caps-lock on Instagram.

Saran-wrapped aesthetically with an unearned sense of uplift, The Dirt is as dorky as Bohemian Rhapsody, which means it’ll probably be a smash. On a scene-to-scene basis, the director Jeff Tremaine (best known for Jackass) actually builds tension and tells a clearer story than Bryan Singer and Dexter Fletcher managed to do with last year’s Queen biopic. But the hammy voice-over work by Tremaine’s four leads is mute-worthy alone. More grating, especially given the subject matter, the fresh-faced cast (Douglas Booth as Nikki Sixx, the rapper Machine Gun Kelly as Lee, Game of Thrones’ Iwan Rheon as Mick Mars, Daniel Webber as Neil) radiates the affability of campaigning politicians, even during its bleariest substance spirals.

Any controversy kicked off by the film will be unenlightening. The movie was bogged down in production for years, Sixx told Rolling Stone, because at least one studio boss objected to the opening scene: Lee giving oral sex to a woman—in the middle of a party—who then shoots a geyser from between her legs to the cheering of onlookers. The sequence ends up feeling less like a throwback to the ’80s free-for-all it depicts than to ’90s raunch-coms such as American Pie. More trollish than legitimately offensive, it’s not quite indicative of the problem here.

A similarly outrageous turn later in the film gets at the deeper rot. At poolside with the newly minted stars of Mötley Crüe, the grande dame of heavy metal, Ozzy Osbourne, dispenses advice: Don’t overdo the drugs and sex on tour, boys, or else you’ll end up “fucking mad.” Presumably to illustrate his point, he snorts a line of live ants. Then he pees on the ground. Then he licks up his own pee. Sixx, inspired by his idol, pees on the ground too. Ozzy pushes him away to lick up the younger man’s urine before Sixx can do so himself.

Yeesh. The depravity-chic of rock and roll can indeed work like a black hole, but Black Sabbath at least pioneered a kind of willful, satanic nihilism. By the time Ozzy’s style had been recycled by Mötley Crüe, any pretense of commentary was gone. “Certain of metal’s trappings (long hair, loud guitars, a kind of spurious defiance) had been appropriated, but this was not heavy metal, because it was not heavy: no doom, no drag,” wrote The Atlantic’s James Parker, reviewing a Crüe contemporary’s memoir. “Metal’s drama of cosmic exile was ditched in favor of a desperate, slurping hedonism.”

Self-indulgence is the individual’s prerogative, but Crüe’s involved more than just the self and more than just indulgence. That others got hurt or destroyed by Crüe’s rampages is hinted at in The Dirt’s litany of the members’ girlfriends and wives who were cheated on and casually insulted. One friend, Hanoi Rocks’s drummer Razzle, died in the car Neil had been drunkenly driving. The bandmates committed betrayals of the lowest sort among one another too. At one point, Neil, fresh out of rehab, is offered what he believes to be a plate of cocaine, but that actually turns out to be heroin.

The Dirt knows it’s working with dark stuff, but excuses it as part of the great adventure to rock bottom and back. By the end, with the reunited members performing Crüe’s final concert in 2015, the band’s survival is portrayed as a life-affirming triumph: the very point of the story. “I can’t say that I worried,” Tremaine told Rolling Stone about making this movie in the #MeToo era. “We are telling a true story that happened. You can interpret it however. I don’t think we changed the tone of the movie to fit the times or anything like that.”

But the public record says that the story was even nastier than what’s shown here. Lee went to jail for battering his then wife, Pamela Anderson, in 1998. Neil pleaded guilty to assaulting a woman in 2016. The band settled a lawsuit with a security guard who alleged they said racist slurs to him, poured beer on him, and directed the crowd to attack him at a 1997 concert. Two additional passengers not depicted in the film suffered brain damage from Neil’s DUI wreck. Most flagrant: The memoir The Dirt includes a passage in which Sixx cops to Neil and Lee “pretty much” raping a woman at a party. The scene isn’t in the movie, and Sixx now says he has no recollection of the event and likely made it up in a drugged haze while giving interviews to their biographer.

There it is, the one line that even Mötley Crüe now will no longer brag of crossing: rape. Yet Sixx’s disavowal comes at a cultural moment when it’s become clear how men afforded a sense of impunity—especially by fame—really can cross any conceivable line. Glaringly, the movie declines to explore that idea or any other explanation for how the guys acted. While Sixx is shown as having a demented relationship with his mother, Lee came from a happy home. It’s not even clear whether the titillation of the public fueled or merely followed the guys’ behavior. “They weren’t like other bands who raised hell because they thought that’s what rock stars were supposed to do,” the group’s tour manager says in the movie. “Mötley Crüe did stupid things because they were Mötley Crüe.” The danger of a document like The Dirt is in showing pigheadedness as not only fun and cool, but also elemental, inexplicable, and unstoppable. Boys will be boys, boys, boys.