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The Mötley Crüe Biopic Wasn’t Made for These Times—or Possibly Any Other

Netflix’s ‘The Dirt’ revels in the glam-metal band’s darkest hours and legendary debauchery, but reality intrudes on the film’s fantasy

Netflix/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

And now, a history lesson from Mötley Crüe bassist Nikki Sixx. “The 1980s: The worst fucking decade in human history. Preppies, keyboards, stupid haircuts, Jazzercise, and ‘Just say no.’ It all fuckin’ sucked.” These are the first words you hear in Netflix’s lurid new Mötley Crüe biopic The Dirt, a lovingly crass tribute to the ’80s glam-metal giants, who are indeed responsible for some of the stupidest haircuts of all time. Sixx is played by the English actor Douglas Booth, whose real-life haircut is of average intelligence, usually; to describe him as the soul of this band or this movie is to imply that either has much of a soul at all.

Anyway, Doug-as-Nikki is still talking. “So what do you do when you’re born in the wrong time?” his voiceover concludes. “You make it yours. And that’s what we did to the Sunset Strip.”

The question of when Mötley Crüe should’ve been born goes unanswered; the right answer might be “never.” The operatically scuzzy L.A. quartet—Sixx, singer Vince Neil (Daniel Webber), guitarist Mick Mars (Iwan Rheon), and drummer Tommy Lee (Machine Gun Kelly)—are synonymous with cock-rock excess, with aerosol-and-mascara MTV saturation, with soaring and shameless power-balladry. “Home Sweet Home,” the band’s best song by light-years, opens the trailer for Season 3 of Stranger Things, further proof of how thoroughly these fellas were once deified and are now calcified, forever synonymous with the decade they fuckin’ hated.

The Dirt is the long-long-long-gestating film version (directed by Jeff Tremaine and out Friday, via Netflix) of the band’s 2001 autobiography, coauthored with Neil Strauss, which ranks among the most entertaining and least pleasant chronicles of sex and drugs and very occasional rock ’n’ roll ever written. The book’s cover is instructive; so too is the movie’s opening scene, which kicks off in 1981 at an X-rated house party where we meet the fellas and establish the tone. Which is to say that Neil is having sex with an extremely topless young lady in the bathroom (the first of countless such encounters), while Lee is going down on another young lady right there in the living room, to whoops of applause that only intensify when that lady, uh, squirts. Cue the title card: The Dirt. No restraint, no class, no bohemians, no rhapsodies.

This movie was definitely born at the wrong time. The book won praise from unlikely corners for its candor, its precise combination of shame and shamelessness, its near-glee in revelling in the Crüe’s darkest hours. In 1987, Sixx was briefly declared legally dead after a heroin overdose; in 1984, a drunken Neil wrecked his sports car, resulting in the death of his passenger, Hanoi Rocks drummer Nicholas “Razzle” Dingley. (Neil spent less than a month in jail.) The Dirt frankly reads better the less you love the band, and reads best if you kind of hate them.

The movie, in turn, plays better the less you know about them, period. One book scene that doesn’t make it to Netflix is when Sixx is having sex with a woman in a closet and tricks her into having sex with Lee as well. The next morning, when the woman calls to tell Sixx that afterward she’d been raped while trying to hitchhike home, he grapples with the full extent of what he’d done. “At first I was relieved, because it meant I hadn’t raped her,” Sixx recalls. “But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I pretty much had.” Earlier this month, Sixx retracted that story, admitting that The Dirt itself was written “during a really low point in my life … I honestly don’t recall a lot of the interviews with Neil [Strauss].” He has since clarified to Rolling Stone that “I stand 100 percent behind the #MeToo movement,” and as for the Crüe’s sex-crazed past, “I’m not saying we were angels, but it was all consensual.”

You deserve to know what you’re getting into, even if it ultimately renders The Dirt unwatchable. Enjoying this movie requires turning off both your brain and, more specifically, your conscience. Tremaine (who directed all four Jackass movies) works overtime to keep things light, bathing even the band’s gnarliest drug binges and near-orgies in the candy-like hues of a teen soap opera. As Vince Neil, Webber is an unconvincing sex-god front man, but he lip-synchs with such aplomb that he might fuck around and win an Oscar. Rheon, best known as Ramsay Bolton on Game of Thrones, is quite excellent as Mick Mars, a glowering, grunting, and near-asexual human Babadook who’s suffering from a degenerative bone disease. (Mars was the book’s hero if only by default; Rheon plays him as a creaky-rock-god version of GLOW’s Sheila the She-Wolf.) And Machine Gun Kelly, rapper extraordinaire, nearly steals the movie: His Tommy Lee is a lovable, drumstick-twirling suburban doof who exudes an infectiously childlike naivete even when he’s trashing a hotel room in a Speedo, or wielding a hairspray flamethrower, or slapping his girlfriend on the tour bus.

And that’s just the problem: Reality keeps intruding on the fantasy, genuine darkness keeps overwhelming the giddiness. All four band members are executive producers on The Dirt, and while this movie is hardly a flattering portrait, it’s still clearly whitewashed. (“I don’t know how we’re not dead or in jail,” Iwan-as-Mick admits. “We shit on a lot of people and did things that we regret every day. But somehow, we’re still here, in it together.”) By the 15th topless woman or umpteenth blowjob joke, it’s all enough to either shame or bore you into celibacy, though that might mercifully drive you away in time to avoid the spectacle of Sixx shooting heroin between his toes. Even Lee’s various tabloid escapades are somehow both over- and underplayed: His tumultuous marriage to Heather Locklear gets a great deal of attention, while his marriage to Pamela Anderson, discussed at length in the book, gets none whatsoever, a disappointment that doubles as an act of mercy. (Lee pleaded no contest in 1998 to a felony charge that he assaulted Anderson.)

Meanwhile, anyone watching this film for actual Musical Content is bound to be disappointed, what with Pete Davidson dropping by as an A&R dolt who literally says things like “You guys want a record deal?” or Daniel-as-Vince dismissing the band’s blockbuster 1985 album Theatre of Pain as “two decent songs—the rest is pure shit.” (Those two songs, in the band’s defense, are “Smokin’ in the Boys Room” and “Home Sweet Home.”) The funniest part of the movie is also among the saddest: a brief rain-soaked exterior shot of a building with a Pearl Jam poster plastered on it, a quick nod to the ’90s alt-rock that helped render the Crüe irrelevant, largely reduced in the public imagination to world-class throwback horndogs who just happened to occasionally hold musical instruments.

It should be noted that vexing moral issues aside, The Dirt is no worse than other recent rock biopics of its ilk, including the prestigious ones. If your big issue with Bohemian Rhapsody is that it failed to honor Freddie Mercury’s legendary flair for backstage hedonism, then you’ll love the scene here where Ozzy Osbourne (Tony Cavalero) shows up for a brief vignette in which he snorts a line of ants and then drops to all fours poolside to lap up his own urine off the concrete. That spectacle is preceded by this conversation:

Nikki: How many chicks have you fucked so far?
Vince: Three.
Nikki: No, no, not today—on the tour.
Vince: Oh, man. I lost count after that gang-bang in Salt Lake City.
Nikki: That was fun!

Was it, though? The movie peaks, as a source of melodrama, with the death of Neil’s 4-year-old daughter, Skyler, from stomach cancer, in a series of wrenching hospital-bed scenes that clash violently with all the bullshit debauchery surrounding them. As a simultaneously butt-simple and ethically complex viewing experience, The Dirt’s single best and somehow purest moment is also its most ridiculous, turning near-tragedy into total slapstick. Sixx is sprawled out in a moving ambulance, overdosed and clinically dead, but one of the two paramedics isn’t having it: “Nah nah nah nah, this is Nikki fucking Sixx, man. He’s not about to die in my ambulance.” He rams two giant needles into Sixx’s chest. Sixx jolts back to life. The two paramedics jubilantly high-five. Call it Drunkest Possible History. If only the whole film could be that cartoonish. If only a cartoon was all it was.