A long time ago, the words sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll carried a hint of danger. The lifestyle did, too, but I’m talking about the phrase. It used to sound cool (back around the time the word “cool” sounded cool). But sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll has long since passed into the realm of vintage American catch-phrase banality, like “How’s that workin’ out for you?” And “The Dirt,” the new Netflix rock biopic about the sordid, squalid saga of Mötley Crüe, the royal hair-metal sleaze gods of the ’80s and ’90s, is a movie that reflects the new harmless status of that phrase.
“The Dirt” boils over with sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, whether it’s Vince Neil (Daniel Webber), the snaky leader singer of Mötley Crüe, acting like a horny jackrabbit as he enjoys a backstage boink with every woman who comes near him, including the girlfriends of his bandmates (no one is safe), or Nikki Sixx (Douglas Booth), the band’s founder, bass player, and most haunted character (his suburban boyhood is presented as a heavy-metal-video version of Dickensian child abandonment), self-medicating by descending into a $1,000-a-day heroin habit, or Tommy Lee (Colson Baker), the group’s blinkered drummer, devolving from a blissed-out wild child who actually adores his stuffy parents into a hotel-room-trashing zombie who vomits all over a pole dancer.
A lot of the anecdotes and details come straight out of Neil Strauss’ 2001 book “The Dirt: Confessions of the World’s Most Notorious Rock Band,” a compendium of tales from the rock ‘n’ roll underbelly that served as the basis for the movie. “The Dirt,” as its title implies, is out to hook us by looking under rocks and reveling in all the too-dirty-for-prime-time stuff that most music biopics leave out.
The trouble is, most of that bad behavior is now so iconic and cliché — the mountains of cocaine, the wrecked hotel rooms, the sloppy swigs from Jack Daniels bottles that get smashed on the floor, the groupies (literally) under the table — that in “The Dirt,” the behavior ends up seeming as innocuous as the old homogenized version used to. That’s what happens when there’s nothing to characters but sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll.
In “The Dirt,” the four members of Mötley Crüe are recognizable as a certain type of leather-and-spandex trashed Sunset Strip bad boy, but in the movie none of them ever becomes a character you can’t take your eyes off. We’re just watching four fresh-faced actors in hair-metal wigs act out some of the greatest hits of rock debauchery as if they were exhibits in a rock ‘n’ roll wax museum.
Great rock biopics, and there have been a few (like “Sid and Nancy” or “Get On Up”), are as full-bodied as any other drama; just because the subject is rock ‘n’ roll, or pop or punk or soul, doesn’t mean that the storytelling needs to cut corners. But mediocre music biopics always have way too much on-the-nose fakery — like that moment early on in “Bohemian Rhapsody” when Freddie Mercury gets up on a club stage with the band who will be Queen, and his mike stand is all messed up, so he knocks one half of it away and comes up with his whole half-a-mike-stand-as-medieval-goblet signature stance in the first 30 seconds of the band’s first gig. That’s the kind of “1970s Rock for Dummies” groaner that lets you know a movie is signposting instead of getting the real story.
As beloved as “Bohemian Rhapsody” was, many Queen fans, including me, found it to be little more than a glorified version of a VH1 original movie, like “Hysteria: The Def Leppard Story” or “Too Legit: The MC Hammer Story.” And judged on that scale, “The Dirt” isn’t even the glorified version. It’s just a thinly written (by Rich Wilkes and Amanda Adelson), generically staged (by Jeff Tremaine, director of the “Jackass” films) VH1-style sketchbook of a movie — which is to say, it’s a Netflix film, with zero atmosphere, overly blunt lighting, and a threadbare post-psychological telegraphed quality that gives you nothing to read between the lines. It’s all on the sensational surface, yet you never completely buy the reality of the settings: the dingy rock clubs and strip bars, the dressing rooms where the halter tops slide off and the lines of coke go up in smoke.
In “The Dirt,” words like “rad” and “gnarly” sound as though they’re being tossed around by 8-year-olds. During Mötley Crüe’s first show, to signify how rebellious the band is, they respond to hecklers by beating up members of the audience — but there had never been any sort of indication that they were bruisers. Pete Davidson pops up as “Tom Zutaut, from Elektra Records,” and he’s unconvincing as even the most green A&R executive. The breathless narration, most of it delivered by Nikki Sixx (the film’s nominal main character), is always telling us too much: “Elektra Records signed us to a five-album deal. We got a fat cash advance, which meant better drugs and bigger parties. We were the kings! I mean, look at this place — everyone wanted to party with us!”
In the ’80s, metal acquired a new sort of raucously porny f—k-it-all swagger. In “The Dirt,” when the band is auditioning Vince, who is Tommy’s old chum, for lead singer, they have him perform “Live Wire,” which was the band’s first single (another overly on-the-nose scene), and when they jack up the speed of it, we hear the power of Mötley Crüe. They were the first major metal ensemble to incorporate the ferocity of punk, and that, mixed with Vince Neil’s knockoff of Bon Scott’s knockoff of Robert Plant, with a sprinkling of the sonic propulsion of “Detroit Rock City,” created the Mötley Crüe sound: a spiky surge of male hormonal fury.
The movie channels that fury well enough, and there’s one scene that entertainingly ushers us into the sex-drugs lifestyle in an innovative way. We hurtle through 24 hours in the life of a touring rock musician, seen entirely from Tommy’s POV, starting with the moment he gets a 5:00 p.m. wake-up call (yes, that’s p.m.), handcuffed to the bed, with no memory of what he did the night before, and then goes out to the evening’s show, which includes his drum solo in a giant spinning steel cage, followed by the revel that starts with a groupie’s offer the moment he gets backstage, and then the midnight plane ride (with a personalized drug regimen dispensed to each band member), and then the arrival in a new city where they immediately head off to a strip club, which is just the appetizer for some rockin’-the-halls mayhem back at the hotel, which leads to the next 5:00 p.m. wake-up and the reveal of how he got handcuffed…
How are the actors? I can only give you the dual answer that’s there for every middling rock biopic: They’re fine, and also not good enough. Douglas Booth, as Nikki, plays his damaged soul as well as the script allows (which is not very), but he lacks Nikki’s snarl. If anything, he looks more like Freddie Mercury (and more like Freddie than Rami Malek did). Daniel Webber, as Vince, is the closest visual match, and he captures how a lead singer lives in his own bubble, but he lacks Vince’s down-and-dirty joi de vivre. Machine Gun Kelly, billed here as Colson Baker, makes Tommy a compellingly cracked metal-head flower child, but he totally lacks Tommy’s biker edge. Iwan Rheon, as Mick Mars, the group’s dyspeptic straight-shooter (he guzzles vodka but stands outside the perpetual party, mostly because of a degenerative back condition), at least has a role to play, maybe because he’s the only one not defined by his bad behavior.
Can Nikki get off heroin? Will Vince, after too much fun, embrace the role of husband and father? (Tragic things keep happening to him, which the film implies are karmic payback.) Will Tommy find love after Heather Locklear (Rebekah Graf)? The questions that frame “The Dirt” don’t add up to a dramatic texture. The film’s only driving issue is, How deep will Mötley Crüe fall into sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll? We already know the answer: not far enough for what they do to look like anything but a rerun.