Netflix’s Motley Crue biopic kickstarts the heart of the band’s musical career, warts and all.
There are certain bands that are just interconnected with your childhood, whether you want them to be or not. Along with the bands and singers you deliberately sought out, they were part of the inescapable soundtrack of your life, the lyrics to their songs imprinted into your brain along with the name of your first real crush, and your parents’ old telephone number.
For me, one of those bands was Motley Crue. I didn’t specifically dislike them, but if you had asked me, as an overly serious teenage music snob, to rank them as performers, they probably wouldn’t have cracked my personal top thirty list. Though “Kickstart My Heart” was a solid jam, to my perception Crue was dumb music for dumb people, the kind of kids who took shop classes because they couldn’t hack “real” school (as you can imagine I was very popular among my peers). They were interesting because they succeeded in a sort of hard rock middle space, like KISS – too scary for the normies, too corny for serious metal fans. Also like KISS, they eventually became far more known for their off-stage antics than for any musical craftsmanship they may have possessed.
Netflix’s The Dirt, a Crue biopic more than a decade in development, focuses largely on those antics. Based on the “nothing but warts” memoir of the same name, it ends up being the biggest surprise of 2019 so far—a funny, surprisingly affecting, even occasionally charming film, despite it including a scene in which Ozzy Osbourne snorts live ants and licks up both his and Nikki Sixx’s urine from the ground.
“We weren’t a band, we were a gang…a gang of fucking idiots,” Sixx (Douglas Booth, Jupiter Ascending) narrates, in the world-weary tone of a human BoJack Horseman. All of Crue’s members, including amiable goofball Tommy Lee (Colson Baker, also known as rapper Machine Gun Kelly), dour, taciturn Mick Mars (Iwan Rheon, Game of Thrones), and insatiable pussyhound Vince Neil (Daniel Webber, The Punisher), take turns narrating, while acknowledging that things didn’t always happen the way they’re portrayed. The film covers about ten years in the life of an L.A. band that successfully merged glam rock with hair metal, paving the way for similar groups like Poison and Bon Jovi, from its formation to its reunion following the death of Neil’s young daughter from cancer. It manages to make being on an endless tour look both terrible and shitloads of fun at the same time.
As far as biopics go, no new ground is covered. All the beats are there – the humble beginnings, the rise to success, the endless parade of drugs and blondes, the ego clashes, the inevitable fall from grace, the darkest hour before the dawn, and the triumphant comeback. There’s even a scene of Sixx snorting coke off a woman’s ass while they’re having sex. It’s how they get from beat to beat that makes it unexpectedly entertaining, while also being gross and appalling at the same time. The film is remarkably self-aware and unpretentious, particularly when compared to bombastic spectacles like Bohemian Rhapsody, which seemed far more concerned with not offending fans than portraying the true story of Freddie Mercury and Queen, including the less flattering parts. Produced by Crue, most of whom appear in behind the scenes clips during the end credits, it’s a love letter to fans who’ve accepted the good with the bad, and haven’t turned their backs on them. The band is keenly aware that they’re a bunch of knuckleheads made good, who craved success and then didn’t appreciate it when they had it.
Things get a little shaky when things take a serious turn, focusing predominantly on Sixx’s well-documented descent into heroin addiction, during which he apparently stuck a needle into every part of his body except for his eyeballs. It’s a (perhaps intentionally) jarring comedown from a dizzying “night in the life of” sequence filmed from Lee’s perspective, which ends with the band’s beleaguered manager (David Costabile) handcuffing him to a hotel room bed for his own safety. If anything, it sounds like a heavy metal power ballad, a little forced and hollow, and you find yourself hoping they get back to the debauchery soon, since that’s clearly what the band members enjoy talking about more.
The movie is at its best during the exhilarating performance scenes, when the actors, who are among the best cast in any biopic ever, aren’t merely mimicking their real-life counterparts, but embodying them. Not having read the book on which The Dirt was based, I have no idea how much time it covers in the history of Motley Crue, but for the movie it’s just enough, with no additional padding. It leaves out the band’s less successful attempts at solo careers, and Lee’s regrettable period as a tabloid fixture, thanks to his marriage to Pamela Anderson (surprisingly, given the film’s commitment to good-natured raunchiness, it also omits any mention of his legendarily enormous dong). Though it briefly touches upon Sixx’s abusive childhood and Mars’ struggle with a degenerative joint disease, the core story here is Motley Crue itself, and the strange, dysfunctional but loving little family consisting of a runaway, a mama’s boy, a ladies’ man, and the solemn older brother who watches their antics with bemusement, when he’s not taking part in them himself. The only thing any of them had in common was good hair and the desire to prove themselves by melting as many faces off as possible.
Did I come away from The Dirt a bigger fan of Motley Crue’s music? Not really, but I’m a bigger fan of Motley Crue themselves. Much like I, Tonya, there’s nothing like a good underdog story, even if the underdogs in question are a little sketchy and sleazy. I found myself saddened at the epilogue that noted the band, after many years of breaking up and reuniting and then breaking up again, played their last live show together in 2015. Evidently, they still get along enough to have worked together on making this movie, though, and that’s good enough. Long live Motley Crue. You wouldn’t want any of them to marry your sister, but no one knows how to have a good time like them.