Are you fucking kidding me?!
You probably uttered this statement in awe at least a few times, dear readers of The Dirt, when you picked up Motley Crue’s 2001 memoir about their life and times as world-class degenerates. Less a biography than a police rap sheet in book form, it’s the sort of glorious backstage tell-all that makes you feel like you can’t turn the pages fast enough; only Hammer of the Gods can compete with it as the ultimate tale of rock stars outdoing Roman emperors in terms of debauchery. The title is the cleanest thing about this book.
And you might mutter it under your breath during the first half hour of Netflix’s The Dirt, which delivers the following elements to you in 30 minutes or less: female ejaculation; naked asses (male and female); the Sunset Strip in all its sleazy ’80s glory; Pete Davidson in a rugby shirt; four men discovering the power of umlauts; sex; drugs; more sex; a montage of the band going to the top set to “Take Me to the Top.” (You have to wait to see Ozzy Osbourne snort a line of ants at a Holiday Inn, a moment of rock history up there with Keith Richards coming up with the “Satisfaction” riff and Elvis on The Ed Sullivan Show, until the 40-minute mark, unfortunately.)
But what will really make you repeat those five words, at a turned-up-to-11 volume, is the moment that happens right before the Prince of Darkness tries to show these yanks how to party when it comes to ingesting Formicidae. We’ve watched Vince Neil (Daniel Webber), Nikki Sixx (Douglas Booth), Mick Mars (former Game of Thrones sadist-in-residence Iwan Rheon) and Tommy Lee (Colson Baker, a.k.a. Machine Gun Kelly) indulge in all sorts of bad behavior up to this point. They’re comparing groupie numbers for the tour; one of them makes a joke about that gang bang in Salt Lake City. High-fives are exchanged. And then Mars, giving his band mates the stink eye, says, “I happen to have respect for myself and the females of our species, unlike you animals.” You can feel it rising in you, like the wave of vomit that hits a person after they’ve chugged a whole bottle of Jack to take the edge off the coke they snorted off someone’s breasts. It’s unstoppable. You can’t hold it in. This is the point where you will shout [boom], shout [boom], shout, shout at your TV screen: Are. You. Fucking. Kidding. Me?!
Because look: When it came to this toxic quartet, Mars was definitely the oldest of the group (he was either 29 or 25 when he joined the band, depending on the source; Sixx was 22 and Lee was 18) and definitely the sickest (literally, as he suffered from ankylosing spondylitis, a degenerative bone disease which Movie Mick tells us is “like hot, quick-drying cement growing on the inside of your spine.”) According to Amanda Adelson and Rich Wilkes’ screenplay, Mars was almost certainly the most gentlemanly member of the group, content to merely gulp down vodka and recline in his vampire-resting pose while everyone else went hog wild. Maybe he did, in fact, say that very thing on that legendary insect-sniffing, urine-licking day so long ago.
But he played in a band that flaunted its image as a band that “drank, snorted and fucked everything in sight,” made boys-will-be-boys videos bursting with barely dressed women and worked in a genre in which female objectification was as much a part of the aesthetic as leopard-print pants and AquaNet. Mars may be the “good guy” by default. He’s also the guitarist for Motley Crue. For The Dirt to include this line at all, much less highlight it in a film that views the American Dream as a blonde giving you a blow job under every table, feels more than a little disingenuous. It’s exemplary of everything that’s wrong with this movie. It feels like everyone involved with this project wants to have its cake and stick its cock in it, too.
Put aside for a second whether it’s wise or necessary or correct to retell this vintage story of rock & roll excess at all in the era we live in; the project has been in the works for nearly a decade, predating a sea change in thinking about men behaving badly and agency and reckoning with a legacy of movies, music etc. that’s affected how we view power dynamics between genders. (Several pieces on these aspects will be written, and by someone much smarter than me.) It’s been made regardless, partially because of the book’s status as a Bible of hair-metal hedonism, partially because no one dedicated to getting this made really gave a flying fuck about reading the sociocultural room and partially because Crue’s fanbase have wanted their own Bohemian Rhapsody-style mythmaking for ages. If that last wish means the gifting the band their own movie that plays fast and loose with facts, can’t find a tonal consistency, tries to offset glamorized highs with teeth-grinding tragic lows in the most hamfisted manner possible and features actors having a hell of a karaoke night, then congratulations. This feather-light heavy metal movie is all yours.
So settle in for what could not be a more stock telling of the Crue’s story, a checklist of music-biopic beats to be dutifully, metronomically hit. The band gets together one member at a time, and then comes the Eureka moment that gives birth to the “Live Wire” you know and love. Someone says the line, “I need to know you’re not pulling dick here, because I’m ready to go the distance.” An early gig goes from bar fight less than 16 bars into the first number to rousing success. Old-school clichés involving “we were all so young and stupid then” voiceovers butt up against new-school meta clichés regarding characters telling us that what we’re watching is bullshit, but, like, print the legend, man. Good times. Bad times, including hitting a woman, manslaughter and a heartbreaking family tragedy, all of which are acknowledged then quickly swept away so we can get back to the good times. A recreation of the Prodigy’s “Smack My Bitch Up” video starring Tommy Lee. A Pearl Jam poster in the rain — no, really — to signal that the golden days are at an end. Return-from-the-dead overdose, rock bottom, rehab, relapse, replacement singer, reunion. Disclaimer that the band played for 20 more years. End credits that compare actors to the real thing. Wasn’t Walk Hard supposed to put a stake in the heart of these kinds of movies?
This is rock bad-boy lore as a rocking bore, an endless parade of recreated afterparty ecstasy and emptiness that robs The Dirt of the vicarious thrill it had on the page — the sense that you shouldn’t be having this much of a second-hand high reading about musicians acting like horrible people but still seeming living-the-dream heroic. Director Jeff Tremaine was the guy behind the cameras for all of those Jackass movies and a bunch of related side projects, and he keeps the memoir’s gonzo vignette format. But you can tell he feels hemmed in by the middle ground he’s got to walk: How do you make a Motley Crue movie that isn’t an epic of hardcore Caligula-style debauchery yet not a Disney movie? The result is to go all out on creating half measures — cleaned-up filthiness, sanitized sleaze, a hologram of Home Sweet Home road-dog crying and punishment. That this retelling has no time for the facts, given the book’s dodgy relationship to the truth, isn’t shocking. That it feels this surprisingly fun-free and generic to a fault, frankly, kind of is. Fans deserve better. If any of them want to collectively sue for defamation of character, let me know where to sign.