The Dirt manages to do something no rock biopic has ever achieved: It’s a movie about a terrible band that never once tries to convince you that they’re actually great. I don’t think that’s what Jackass director Jeff Tremaine was shooting for — and I assume that fans of Mötley Crüe won’t see the film that way — but while suffering through The Dirt’s interminable running time, I became fascinated by the fact that nobody involved with the movie really worried that much about selling me on the group’s legacy. We’ve had warts-and-all biopics like The Doors or straight-up comedies such as This Is Spinal Tap, which satirized a whole subgenre of terrible bands, but The Dirt considers Crüe’s creative achievements almost beside the point. The film celebrates a band — and an era — in which artistry and originality played second-fiddle to an entitled belief that any dumb, horny white dude deserved his 15 minutes of rock ‘n’ roll stardom. The movie sucks because the band sucks because the era sucked.
The movie is based on the 2001 autobiography, which was written by the band and journalist Neil Strauss — it’s a dishy, scandalous book seemingly designed to inspire dozens of “Here Are the 10 Craziest Things That Happen in _____” online listicles. Very few of Crüe’s contemporaries have gotten their own films — Def Leppard had to suffer the indignity of watching their career reduced to a basic-cable movie — and it’s not hard to understand why. Few take a band like the Crüe seriously. Bob Dylan, Buddy Holly, Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Doors, Brian Wilson, Ray Charles — the rock era’s progenitors are held up as musical gods, and so, it would make sense that they be canonized in cinematic form. You may hate Bohemian Rhapsody — lots of people do — but you can’t deny that Queen aren’t at least somewhat significant to the history of rock ‘n’ roll. Even N.W.A, who got their own biopic with 2015’s Straight Outta Compton, are more culturally important in however you define “the rock era” than Mötley Crüe.
Nobody explained any of this to the people who made The Dirt, however. More likely, those involved in this movie don’t see the world that way. They’re unmoored from reality, which you can tell instantly because the film starts with Douglas Booth (who plays Crüe bassist Nikki Sixx) setting the scene: “The 1980s, the worst fucking decade in human history. Preppies and keyboards, stupid haircuts, Jazzercise and ‘Just Say No.’ It all fucking sucked.” Apparently, The Dirt’s thesis is that Mötley Crüe rode in like valiant heroes to smite that decade’s suckiness. Take that, New Wave and Ronald Reagan: Here comes a band that … well, actually embodied everything that was soulless and cynical about the ‘80s. (And let’s not even discuss the Crüe’s stupid haircuts…)
Of course, there’s a coded message in Sixx’s intro. Mötley Crüe were a band that personified rock’s T&A hedonism — that believed that wild sex and abundant drugs were crucial components of the music. You don’t have to be Super Woke Guy 2019 to understand that the Crüe advocated a very heteronormative, dude’s-dude brand of popular music — one that despised the “preppies and keyboards” because they weren’t manly enough. (It didn’t rawk, bro.) Mötley Crüe may have teased their hair and wore makeup, but there wasn’t anything girly about their testosterone-fueled party-hearty songs. Getting laid has been the ulterior motive for boys joining bands since the dawn of time — hell, even Paul Simon admitted he started writing songs to meet girls — but in the wake of corporate rock’s rise in the 1970s, 1980s rock bands like Mötley Crüe completely shed the blues influences and occasional social commentary of 1960s groups for a singular, adolescent focus. To paraphrase their onetime rivals in Poison, they didn’t need nothin’ but a good time.
Excess may be The Dirt’s grand subject, but the movie is populated by the biggest collection of dullards I’ve ever encountered. I don’t want to disparage actors Douglas Booth, Iwan Rheon, Colson Baker and Daniel Webber, who play, respectively, bassist Nikki Sixx, guitarist Mick Mars, drummer Tommy Lee and lead singer Vince Neil. I don’t even think they’re inept performers — if anything, they’re too good at conveying the utter vapidity of these bozos. Excess can be incredibly entertaining. But excess carried out by non-entities gets insufferable fast. Even worse, these idiots are so unremarkable that it’s almost offensive that they become world-famous. They think the world is out to get them, never realizing that, as straight bros, they’ve actually been given the inside track.
The Dirt is narrated by the band through voiceover, the characters occasionally breaking the fourth wall so that Mötley Crüe or their associates can speak directly to camera. When Martin Scorsese incorporates this technique, it’s to create a false sense of intimacy with his disreputable main characters, who try to charm us into seeing things from their perspective. But because nobody in The Dirt is likable, what we’re left with is Asshole Goodfellas, where instead of hanging out with mobsters we’re stuck tailing oversexed, coked-up cretins who love making everyone’s life around them hell. Mind you, none of those hotel employees, strippers or long-suffering managers deserve this treatment: Even if the film tries faintly at the start to establish the band members’ difficult childhoods, anyone not already enamored of Mötley Crüe will wonder why the hell they should care about these privileged schmucks.
What’s even sadder is that, with Jackass, Tremaine proved himself able to dissect bro-tastic masculinity in thoughtful, challenging ways, exploring its homoerotic underpinnings while also showing the sweetness in the bond between Johnny Knoxville and the rest of his crew. The Jackass posse might have appeared to be assholes, but there was a lot of depth and complexity to those guys, and their humanity shone through.
The Dirt cares little about humanity — it’s a cartoon of Sunset Strip decadence that has nothing to rail against and very little sense of pathos. (For those not familiar with Mötley Crüe’s story, a few moments of tragedy occur in The Dirt. But it’s nearly impossible to feel anything when all the actors are emoting while wearing such terrible wigs.)
Obviously, my annoyance at The Dirt is part of the filmmakers’ scheme: You just don’t know how to party, dude! But I refuse to accept The Dirt’s worldview, which positions Mötley Crüe as fun-loving rascals who fucked everything that moved and snorted every drug they could. For the love of god, this is barely even a movie about music, which I suppose is fitting. Mötley Crüe had plenty of hits — most of them are bad — but songwriting was always secondary to attitude. They perfected the concept of a lifestyle brand before such a term was ubiquitous. The Dirt furthers the brand at the expense of anything remotely interesting.
And here’s the thing: I’ve actually interviewed people in this band — and in the roughly 45 minutes I spent in their company, they were far more engaging and nuanced than anything that comes across in The Dirt. Most rock biopics try to dig into their subjects to figure out what makes them tick. The Dirt does the opposite — it gleefully argues that Mötley Crüe are as dumb and inessential as you’d assumed. So why even watch?
Here are three other takeaways from The Dirt.
#1. Is snorting ants a thing?
The book The Dirt had plenty of notorious moments — including ones that the band now have to apologize for — but one of the most infamous involved the Crüe hanging out with Ozzy Osbourne, who they witnessed snorting a line of ants off the ground in lieu of cocaine. The scene is also in the movie, and so once again Mötley Crüe have had to answer questions about it and reaffirm that, yes, it really happened. Even Ozzy has confirmed the tale:
The former Black Sabbath singer then laps up his own urine in the movie — and then Sixx’s — but let’s not focus on that at the moment. (Please, I’m begging you.) Instead, I was curious if snorting ants was some sort of underground phenomenon I was unaware of.
Turns out… sort of?
In 2008, the Abu Dhabi publication The National reported that teenagers were coming up with clever alternatives to pot, which was illegal. According to the paper, “More than a third of children and some as young as 13 have smoked the native samsum ant as a substitute for illegal substances such as marijuana, a senior [United Arab Emirates] health official has warned. Smoking the red ant gives a similar sensation to smoking marijuana and sniffing glue because of the high concentration of formic acid found in the ants.”
As a result, a marketplace was born: Young people started buying packets of ants to get high. “People smoke the ants because they are cheaper and safer — in the eyes of the law — than smoking narcotics,” a law-enforcement spokesman told The National. “It is also widely available, if not easily purchased.”
As best as I can tell, Arab teens are still smoking samsum, which is also known as samsun. Not that the little critter doesn’t carry some crazy side effects: In 2015, a “Dubai-based pulmonologist” told Gulf News, “Samsun ants contain highly concentrated formic acid which is used by the insect to ward off predators and kill prey. When heated the formic acid produces toxic gases. They are not addictive but inhaling them can cause pulmonary fibrosis and renal failure besides other conditions including irreversible nervous system damage.”
That still sounds safer than watching The Dirt.
#2. Let’s remember when Guns N’ Roses and Mötley Crüe wanted to kill each other.
Because they were part of the L.A. rock scene around the same time — and because their lead singers hated each other — I was curious if Guns N’ Roses would make a cameo in The Dirt. Unfortunately, this is as close to a GNR cameo as we get in the movie:
Yup, that’s GNR guitarist Slash passed out at a Crüe party.
For those who don’t remember, the bands’ feud reached its zenith in the late 1980s. The bad blood stemmed from Crüe singer Vince Neil being angry at GNR guitarist Izzy Stradlin, accusing him of punching his wife Sharise Ruddell while Neil was away on a whitewater-rafting trip. The two bands were at the 1989 MTV Video Music Awards, and according to the Mötley Crüe autobiography, Neil took that opportunity to punch Stradlin. In the book, Neil claims that he said, “You fucking hit my wife!” and that Stradlin responded, “So fucking what?” Neil snapped: “All my blood rushed into my fist, and I decked him. I decked him good, right in the face. He fell to the ground like a tipped cow.”
Neil claimed that GNR singer Axl Rose then shouted, “Come on, motherfucker, I’m going to fucking kill you!” There were no further fisticuffs, but to get back at Neil, Rose agreed to an interview with Kerrang! writer Mick Wall, which (as Wall recalled) consisted of the journalist going over to Rose’s place late one night so that the singer could berate the Mötley Crüe singer and offer a different version of what went down between Stradlin and Ruddell.
In 2017, Wall recalled that Rose claimed that Ruddell had come onto the guitarist. “He began ranting about how he wanted to ‘kill that motherfucker,’” Wall wrote in Classic Rock, adding “He was saying crazy things, fantasizing about what he was going to do to Vince once he got hold of him … including some astonishing statements like, ‘Anyway you wanna go, guns or knives, motherfucker,’ and a few other choice phrases.” When Wall was getting ready to publish the story, he decided to contact Rose to run his quotes by him one more time, essentially giving the singer an out if he wanted to back away from his comments. “He just laughed at me,” Wall wrote. “‘No, man,’ he said. ‘I still stand by every fuckin’ word!’”
When the Kerrang! piece ran, it became big news in the rock world, and according to Wall, Rose tried to paint him as the bad guy. “Nothing was ever his fault,” Wall wrote. “If something had gone wrong, it must have been someone else’s fuck-up. Or, in this case, mine.”
And that’s part of the reason why we have “Get in the Ring,” the temper-tantrum track from Guns N’ Roses’ 1991 album Use Your Illusion II that’s mostly Rose spewing venom at his perceived enemies. Neil isn’t mentioned, but Wall is…
And that goes for all of you punks in the press
That want to start shit by printing lies instead of the things we said
That means you Andy Secher at Hit Parader
Mick Wall at Kerrang!
As close as Rose ever got again to acknowledging his war with Neil was (maybe) in another Use Your Illusion II track, “Shotgun Blues,” where the GNR frontman promises, “I’ll stick it right in your face / And then I’ll put you in your motherfucking place.”
So, yeah, maybe this is why Guns N’ Roses don’t factor much into the movie. Also: GNR is a way better band that the Crüe.
#3. In 2011, I asked some of Mötley Crüe who should play them in a movie.
Eight years ago, Mötley Crüe received the Ronnie James Dio Lifetime Achievement Award at the Revolver Golden Gods Awards. I’ve written for the hard rock magazine for a while, and my editor asked me to interview Nikki Sixx and Mick Mars to get their reactions to being honored. We talked about a lot of stuff, but digging through my notes, I realized that I had asked them about the possibility of their autobiography being turned into a movie. If that ever happened, I wondered, who would they want to play them?
Here was Sixx’s answer:
I think it would be a disgrace to have a known actor play anybody in Mötley Crüe. How can you honor Tommy Lee or Vince Neil or Nikki Sixx or Mick Mars if you’re already a known actor? It’s very rare that I see it happen, and I personally don’t want to watch somebody else being Tommy: I want to watch Tommy. I want to be convinced that that guy’s Tommy, and the only way to do that, in my opinion, is to be an unknown actor — an edgy, up-and-coming, really-willing-to-throw-themselves-under-the-bus-and-go-for-it type of actor.
Sixx sorta got his wish in regards to Tommy Lee, who’s played by Colson Baker, better known as rapper Machine Gun Kelly. And I’ll admit that it does sorta help that you don’t necessarily recognize these actors from earlier roles. They might as well be Mötley Crüe lookalikes.
But I really loved Mars’ answer:
This is gonna sound really strange: I think that Seth Green would probably play me more like me than anyone else. He’s not a very tall person, like I am, and he’s kinda off-kilter — he’s warped a little bit. [laughs] I think he’s very deadly serious about the stuff he does when he does act, and he’s kind of a comedian — I’m kind of a goof-off, too.
That did sound really strange when he brought it up, and ultimately, I think Sixx had the right idea. It would have been too distracting to see Green (or another name actor) pretending to be a guy in Mötley Crüe. Also: Mars is indeed a funny, odd guy in person. The one thing The Dirt gets right is that the dude just doesn’t seem like he should be in a badass metal band.