The glam bands of the 1980s may not represent heavy metal’s artistic high point, but they definitely had more fun with the genre than anyone else. And no one embodied the grimy soul of hair metal better than Mötley Crüe, the L.A. foursome that released an unbroken string of platinum-selling albums throughout the decade, flamed out spectacularly when grunge hit the scene, and later reunited until their retirement (at least from touring) in 2015.
Netflix’s The Dirt, the long-awaited biopic of the band based on the 2001 book of the same name, has it all: the sex, the drugs, the tragedy, the sheer ridiculousness, and, oh yeah, the sleazy music at the heart of it all. Saturated in nudity and crude humor, this thing isn’t going to win any awards, but no Crüe fan can watch it without having a big stupid smile plastered on his face most of the time — and wincing at the close-up shots of heroin injections and other dark moments that balance out the band’s gleeful highs.
“We weren’t a band, we were a gang,” intones Nikki Sixx (played by Douglas Booth), the group’s bassist and chief songwriter, in the movie’s opening moments. “A gang of f***ing idiots.”
Sixx winds up in Los Angeles after running away from his dysfunctional home and starts playing in bands. Tommy Lee (played by the rapper Machine Gun Kelly) meets him at a diner following a gig and impresses him by twirling a drumstick, a trick Lee sheepishly admits learning in marching band. Guitarist Mick Mars (Iwan Rheon), older, grouchier, and less enthusiastic about the rock-’n’-roll lifestyle — he has played in a string of failed bands and suffers from a rare form of arthritis that starting at a young age increasingly limits his movement — is acquired through a classified ad. And singer Vince Neil (Daniel Webber), a charismatic friend of Lee’s, gets poached from a cover band.
And that’s that. The foursome click quickly, working out the tracks that form their debut, Too Fast for Love, which has both a punkier edge and a little more of a power-pop vibe to it than their subsequent work. They borrow heavily from Kiss for their stage shows, with copious makeup and theatrics. Women go wild. Elektra signs them to a record deal, and then it’s off to the road, with all the debauchery one would expect. Shout at the Devil, their second and best album, hits in 1983, and they tour with Ozzy Osbourne.
(This tour, unfortunately, is the scene of an embarrassing error: Doc McGhee tells the camera that by that point he’d managed a long list of bands including Skid Row but had never been through what Mötley put him through. McPhee did manage Skid Row, but only after that point — seeing as Skid Row wasn’t even formed until 1986 and didn’t release an album until 1989. C’mon, guys, everyone who knows hair metal knows that Skid Row came in right at the end of it.)
This is the point in every rock story, alas, where everything goes down the toilet. Lee hits his girlfriend on the tour bus, an incident that then simply fades from the story. Neil leaves a party drunk with a friend, “Razzle” from Hanoi Rocks, to buy more booze and crashes the car, a notorious incident that kills Razzle, critically injures two people in another vehicle, and results in a 30-day jail sentence for Neil. Sixx “falls in love” . . . with heroin, and nearly dies from an overdose after letting a dealer shoot him up.
In this drugged-out period, they release two albums even they don’t like, Theatre of Pain and Girls, Girls, Girls — though the former has plenty of fans, including yours truly, and the latter, while heavy on filler, has a couple of undeniable hits on it, too. Sixx’s songwriting talents and the group’s chemistry are so strong that they succeed despite themselves.
Then they manage to pull it all together for one last hurrah. They go to rehab and in 1989 put out Dr. Feelgood, which at six times platinum becomes their best-selling record ever. But if heroin and vehicular manslaughter couldn’t kill Mötley Crüe, sobriety and Nirvana could. Tensions mount during the Dr. Feelgood tour, and Neil leaves the band when the others want to update their sound to keep with the times.
Second-tier rock singer John Corabi steps into Neil’s shoes for a grungy self-titled album that bombs in 1994. The effort has some decent tracks and maintains a small cult following to this day, though the movie doesn’t highlight the music. Not long thereafter, the band gives in to popular sentiment and reunites with Neil, who’s still reeling from the cancer death of his young daughter.
In the movie, that’s the end of the story, though text at the end explains that the Crüe stuck around for another 20 years. That’s probably for the best, even though some interesting stuff happened after that: 1997’s Generation Swine, another alternative-rock album written for Corabi that ended up with Neil’s vocals on it instead; the Tommy Lee/Pamela Anderson sex tape; Saints of Los Angeles, the fantastic 2008 swan song from the band; numerous side projects, including the alt-metal group Sixx:A.M.; and, rather less successfully, Tommy Lee’s rap-metal experiment Methods of Mayhem. (I remember the local rock station playing a single from the first MoM album when it came out in 1999 — and the disc jockey profusely apologizing to his listeners immediately thereafter.)
The Dirt doesn’t transcend its form; this isn’t a movie you should watch even if you don’t like the band at its center. But it’s a movie that does right by its core audience. If you love Mötley Crüe — and you should — this is an unregrettable use of two hours of your time.