The Mötley Crüe biopic shot in New Orleans suffers in predictable ways as it adapts the cult classc book to the midsized screen.

motley crue the dirt production still
Mötley Crüe as depicted in "The Dirt"

Netflix’s The Dirt shouldn’t have happened. The Mötley Crüe band autobiography that inspired the film is an epic tale of bad behavior, but it benefits from being a book. The printed word doesn’t force you to deal with some of the realities that seeing some of the incidents in the story make unavoidable.

I loaned someone my copy of The Dirt, but it never came back. As such, I’m working from memory, and I remember The Dirt as a story of epic dumbness, typified by bassist Nikki Sixx not going home after the Crüe’s first national tour because he didn’t want to tell her that he had cheated on girlfriend/rock star Lita Ford nightly. Instead—if I remember correctly—he stayed with a roadie in a house that had little more than a cooler and lawn furniture for weeks, as if not seeing Ford kept the possibility that she didn’t know alive. On another occasion, VInce Neil convinced the owner of a cigar bar to let him and Mel Gibson close the place after they met there earlier one night. Because of Neil’s carelessness, the place to burn to the ground after he left. Taken as a whole, The Dirt reads as the story of two-and-a-half, maybe three meatheads—guitarist Mick Mars doesn’t seem to be one, and bassist Nikki Sixx shows occasional signs of consciousness—who stumbled into stardom and once there, had no idea what to do beyond annihilate themselves and fuck their way through the world.

That latter part is poorly served by the movie. It’s hard in the light of the #MeToo movement to see all the women treated as conquests at best and not think about how these encounters worked out for them, and how empty a rationalization the movie’s ‘dumb boys will be dumb boys’ vibe is. That’s all in the book, but in the books, the narrative affects what you see in your mind’s eye. In the film, the parade of largely naked, unnamed women that don’t get lines is unavoidable. The girls the members fuck are nothing more than props in the story and the scenes. When Vince fucks his label A&R guy’s girlfriend, the A&R guy—played by Pete Davidson—says to the camera in a those scamps tone, “Don’t leave your girlfriend with Mötley Crüe because they will fuck her.” While the band was onstage, she smiled, signaling that the encounter worked out just fine for her.

The other women in the movie drastically fail the Bechdel Test. Not only do women not talk to each other, in the movie, but they only exist to tell the guys’ stories. The Scarlett Johansson look-alike who plays Vince’s girlfriend early on is only in the movie to decide that the band’s not good enough for her boyfriend, then be won over by them. The woman who plays Heather Locklear is in the movie exists to get married to Tommy Lee so that a heroin-addicted Nikki Sixx can shit all over the whole occasion. They have few lines, no agency, and no life outside Mötley Crüe. 

The movie might work better if it were simply better made and better contextualized the debauchery. But it’s not. At one point, Nikki identifies the band as a runaway, an old man, a cover band singer, and a kid drummer, and the characterization of the band members never gets deeper than that. An hour later, they’re the junkie one, the married one, the one with a sick daughter, and the one that’s Mick Mars, but those identifiers are no better substitutes for characterization than than they were earlier in the movie.  The tone, on the other hand, is all over the map, taking a dark turn early with a flashback to Nikki’s childhood with abusive stepfathers and a scene where he framed his alcoholic mother for child abuse, but less than a half-hour later, we get hijinx at a poolside with the Crüe and Ozzy Osbourne. At one point, we get Tommy Lee’s day of debauchery from his point of view, and I assume such moments as throwing up on a stripper and fighting manager Doc McGhee was supposed to be funny, though the scene is followed soon by VInce Neil and his family arranged around his dying daughter’s hospital bed as if it’s a grave. 

It might also help if The Dirt didn’t treat Mötley Crüe as heroes. For all the scenes that show them to be dopes like the one where they choose their name, there are more that present them as the winners. The concert footage presents them as rock gods, and they usually outwit the authority figures. In one scene, they interrupt a Tom & Jerry-like chase through a hotel by stepping out of the hallway while a security guard runs past. They use the moment to snort a few lines before getting back in the chase.

You could quibble with portrayals of real people, inconsistencies between the movie, the book and real life, but shortcuts happen. What’s unforgivable is the way the movie treats women as badly as Mötley Crüe did. Perhaps there really was a woman who seemingly hung out under a table in the bar giving anonymous blow jobs to anyone who sits down in the booth. Putting such a character in the movie brutally tone deaf in 2019 because it pawns her off as a punch line—not even the punch line—which is mean and out of touch.

Watching The Dirt makes it hard to avoid the conclusion that the entire rock ’n’ roll narrative we’ve grown up with is an elaborate rationalization of male narcissism and indulgence. Mötley Crüe is hardly the only band to behave this way, but their road exploits are largely their versions of stunts pulled by The Who, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, and countless bands whose exploits were presented to in the rock press as the rock ’n’ roll adventure at its apex. It’s a narrative that offers few roles for women that aren’t support positions—usually sexual support positions—and explains away the trail of destruction visited upon Holiday Inns across America. In The Dirt as in real life, that means few women even get names, much less personalities or defining characteristics. 

The book succeeded because it was easy to contextualize it as a Hunter S. Thompson-like deep dive into the heart of rock ’n’ roll, a Fear & Loathing on the Sunset Strip. It could easily be read as a critique of such boneheaded excess, and that would have made for a better movie. Instead, the movie produced by the members of Mötley Crüe gives us yet another run-though of rock’s history of men behaving indulgently, and in the end when they come out the other side of their dark times to a happy We survived ending. Of course, what they survived are their own personal lives they wrecked like hotel rooms—rooms where naked women were just part of the furniture and just as disposable. The Dirt on Netflix asks you to overlook that and see things their way.