As Andy Warhol famously never said: “In the future, every arena-sized music act of the 20th century will get its own ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ for 115 minutes.” The truth of those apocryphal words was obvious even before the execrable Queen biopic grossed almost a billion dollars; the age of infinite content doesn’t offer enough bandwidth for actual creation, so most of our pop culture has to be exhumed from the past (a phenomenon made literal by the sustained explosion of true crime stories). It was all fun and games — sequels and reboots — until someone figured out that music could be a magic bullet for mainstream biopics, and then — wham! — the next thing we knew, Rami Malek had won Best Actor for cosplaying as Freddie Mercury in a movie that supposedly directed itself (speaking of Wham!, it’s only a matter of time before Richard Madden is cast as George Michael in “Freedom” or “Last Christmas” or whatever that cash-grab would be called).
This might not be so bad if every band got the “Bohemian Rhapsody” that it deserved. By that logic, “Bohemian Rhapsody” itself would have been a lot better than it was, and Netflix’s wonderfully bad “The Dirt” — which chronicles the drug-fueled rise, fall, and resurrection of Mötley Crüe — would have been directed by Gaspar Noé. Alas, that’s not quite how it works. For all the unique details of their story (and their sound), Queen’s big screen bow was so generic that it felt like Bryan Singer was trying to gaslight everyone into forgetting that “Walk Hard” had already reduced this entire genre to a joke. And for all the legendary hedonism that defined their lives, Mötley Crüe’s movie feels like it could have been made about any one of a zillion other bands. Hell, it could even have been made about Queen! Replace Live Aid with Whiskey a Go Go, Mike Meyers with Pete Davidson, and hesitant queerness with relentless heteronormativity, and “The Dirt” would be virtually indistinguishable from last year’s Oscar-winning sensation.
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“The 1980s: The worst fucking decade in human history.” So begins a playfully subjective biopic that keeps its tongue firmly wedged in its cheek (among other places) for most of its running time. It doesn’t really matter that “The Dirt” makes the ’80s seem like a non-stop party for the members of Mötley Crüe; it’s more important for the film to establish a shout at the devil attitude that allows the story to sidestep the rough parts and focus its energy on girls, girls, girls.
Viewers should expect no less from co-writer Tom Kapinos (working here with Amanda Adelson), whose long-running “Californication” established him as an unrepentant holdover from a time when “horny men who sometimes feel things” was the only narrative a Hollywood screenwriter would need. He’s in top form right from the start, as the movie drops us into the middle of a coke-fueled orgy that feels like a Cinemax-level cross between “Caligula” and “Jackass.”
Nikki Sixx (Douglas Booth) narrates the scene, and laughs at himself for lighting his arm on fire in order to look punk. Vince Neil (Daniel Webber) mounts a groupie in the bathroom. Mick Mars (Iwan Rheon, better known as the psychotic Ramsay Bolton on “Game of Thrones”) is in too much back pain to have sex, and Tommy Lee (the always watchable Machine Gun Kelly, whose puppy dog charm is used to great effect) makes a random woman ejaculate in front of the crowd that’s gathered in the living room; somehow, the penis that launched 1,000 sex tapes is never mentioned.
The action is only held together by the sheer force of its anarchic energy, as “Bad Grandpa” director Jeff Tremaine knows how to make a good time feel like it’s always on the brink of going bad. He makes sure to steel his audience for a film that will be told with all the historical clarity of a massive hangover. “We weren’t a band,” Sixx tells us. “We were a gang. A gang of fucking idiots.” And the film never offers anything to contradict that.
If anything, “The Dirt” celebrates that idea, and it does so with an abject disinterest in making amends; you know a movie has some problems when Pete Davidson’s character is the closest thing it has to a moral center. The tabloid star is cast against type as squarish record executive Tom Zutaut, the kind of guy who wears a collared shirt to an orgy and shrugs off the fact that every member of the band he just signed is having sex with his girlfriend; everything you need to know about this movie can be summed up by the moment when Davidson turns to the camera and deadpans the immortal line: “Don’t ever leave your girlfriend alone with Mötley Crüe, because they’ll fuck her.”
It was a different time. Misogyny was cool, and STDs apparently hadn’t been invented yet. In fact, the “boys will be boys, women will be toys” mentality is perhaps the most believable period detail, as it often seems as though most of the budget was spent on digitally removing Machine Gun Kelly’s tattoos. Tremaine must have hired the people who animated Jeremy Renner’s arms in “Tag,” because the illusion is flawless.
However, “The Dirt” frequently reminds us, this isn’t a documentary, it’s a half-remembered fever dream (hence the eye-rolling bits when someone breaks the fourth wall to announce that certain scenes didn’t actually happen, a gag that seriously overestimates how credible the rest of the movie seems). In much the same way as “Bohemian Rhapsody” was tailored to the whims of Queen’s surviving members, “The Dirt” regurgitates Mötley Crüe’s history the way they want it to be remembered.
Adapted from Neil Strauss’ “The Dirt: Confessions of the World’s Most Notorious Rock Band” — which was ostensibly co-authored by the entire band — the movie speeds through the sanitized Cliffsnotes of four different lives, making them look like nothing but a good time (keep an eye out for Poison biopic “Nothing but a Good Time,” in theaters Thanksgiving 2022). At one point Ozzy Osbourne (a convincingly washed Tony Cavalero) snorts ants beside a hotel pool, pees on the tiling, and then laps up his own urine. That’s neither here nor there, but it seemed worth mentioning.
Of course, the film isn’t completely devoid of backstory or bumps along the road. We see that Sixx was abused as a child, and competed with his mom for the leftover scraps of his father’s affection. We see that Tommy Lee grew up in the warmest of households, but that it didn’t stop the otherwise fun-loving guy from abusing his future wives (you’ll be unsurprised to learn that “The Dirt” doesn’t dwell on those crimes). We even see Neil get sober when his young daughter is diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer, a genuinely heartbreaking turn of events that’s hard to swallow in a rise-and-fall story that has no idea how to handle the inevitable comedown.
Inspired as it might have been to hire Tremaine for the bacchanalian stuff, this is a guy who cut his teeth by filming Johnny Knoxville get hit in the balls — he doesn’t exactly know how to sell the second half of the movie, when the karma police come knocking and Mötley Crüe has to answer for a life of mindless self-indulgence (Annapurna presents Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Karma Police,” starring Franz Rogowski as Jonny Greenwood).
Rock biopics often struggle with the part after the party’s over, but “The Dirt” becomes unusually adrift; at times, you can’t even tell what decade you’re supposed to be watching, although Tremaine admirably tries to get things on track and play to his strengths with an amusing third act sequence that follows a day in the life of Tommy Lee. The sex, drugs, and rock & roll of it all is old hat, but illustrating the inertia of that cycle briefly allows the movie to break free from its clichés, and look at a painfully familiar story from a compellingly different angle. It’s not Scorsese or anything, but after 85 minutes of doing coke and banging chicks, it feels like staring at the Sistine Chapel. And when that’s over, it’s back to the usual beats: The apologies, the kumbaya moment, the farewell tour.
Forget about rock bands getting the “Bohemian Rhapsody” they deserve; if “The Dirt” is any indication, the future will find rock bands getting the exact same “Bohemian Rhapsody” that Queen already got, over and over again, but with a slightly different soundtrack. Dewey Cox may have been conceived as a parody, but now he seems more like a prophet.
“The Dirt” is now streaming on Netflix.