The differing opinions on Bryan Singer/Dexter Fletcher’s Bohemian Rhapsody has formed a key part of the critical community’s dialogue over the past six months, with varied takes calling into question the film’s accuracy, depiction of the lead’s sexuality and its general quality when viewed outside the lens of the award season lovefest: for me, Bohemian Rhapsody was just another in a long line of standing ovation biopics that have come to dominate the industry’s prestige picture category. As is typical, more are coming out in the wake, with The Dirt, based on the 2001 book of the same name, preceding Dexter Fletcher’s (he’s fully directing this one) Elton John biopic Rocketman, while movies based on Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Beatles, Journey, Iggy Pop and Nirvana are all in various stages of development.
The Dirt, at least, is getting out ahead of them all, after a torturous development cycle that stretches back to 2006, with the film’s production only really getting going when Netflix got involved. The story of Mötley Crüe – of glam rock, outrageous backstage antics, drug-addled highs and lows – is certainly good enough to pique interest, but was this a worthwhile project, or just the next offering in what is sure to become a receptive wave of musical biopics?
In 1981 down-on-his-luck runaway Nikki Sixx (Douglas Booth) forms a rock band with forever happy drummer Tommy Lee (Colson Baker), older Mick Mars (Iwan Rheon) and hedonistic singer Vince Neil (Daniel Webber), that they soon dub Mötley Crüe. A tricky start is soon followed by enormous fame as their glam rock style takes the music world by storm. But underneath it all, each of the band numbers faces the challenge of stopping their personal demons from ruining everything they have built.
The thing that you worry about with the inevitable deluge of musical biopics sure to come out in the next few years is the formula, and that worry is not unique to this sub-genre. It is the formula for every standing ovation biopic really, and it goes basically like this: Introduction of a scrappy, yet unlucky protagonist(s) – rocky start – growing success – height of his/her/their power – problems emerge – falling out – disaster occurs – tragedy – reconciliation – grand finale – standing ovation – freeze frame.
I outline that not to bash the concept of the formula, because formula is inevitable in any medium, but to try and make the reader understand that The Dirt adheres to the formula so strictly, with such little thought for any possible subversion or deviation, that it can only be considered a soulless, designed-by-committee shell of a film, that falls so far short of the story it deigns to tell it’s hard to imagine anyone, fans of Mötley Crüe, of musicals, of movies, enjoying it. Where’s the message? Where’s the depth? Nowhere to be seen, with the theme of this movie seemingly to be “fame is great, until it isn’t, until it is again”.
The other major flaw is that, even while it adheres to the formula, The Dirt still comes across as a dull assortment of scenes, sequences and events with little in the way of through-line. Though they did not invent the concept, I was reminded of Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s comments on the importance of “Therefore” and “but” in terms of stringing scenes together, in order to form an actual narrative, otherwise you are stuck with the dreaded “and then”, signifying that things just happen one after the other with no rhyme or reason to them. An “and then” biopic is just replication, and that may well be what they were going for, especially with that side-by-side credits sequence showing how close to the real thing The Dirt is. But that does not a good movie make.
Especially in terms of the characters and their arcs, things just happen in The Dirt, followed by more things just happening, and then, and then, and then, as if the screenwriters just picked out their favourite recollections from the book and threw them all in. For the most part, this means lots of nudity, sex and other “outrageous” events, with the concept of “less is more” flying out the window from the very first scene, which features the Lee character performing oral sex on a woman in the middle of a drug-addled party, for the amusement of his band mates (the sequence dares to copy a tracking shot from the far superior Boogie Nights).
It only gets worse: a recurring joke about Neil constantly having sex with adoring fans in his dressing room loses it’s charm fast, as does a recurring bit about blowjobs underneath a table (women are not treated very well in this film, shocker); Nikki Sixx’s addiction to heroin is first outlined in an utterly hackneyed bait-and-switch sequence; and such seemingly serious events like spousal abuse, manslaughter and child death are passed over so quickly it’s a wonder the production team want us to care about them at all. Things happen of great or little consequence and then are barely referenced again, or scenes are included that simply son’t fit, like one particular egregious example featuring Tony Cavalero as Ozzy Osbourne, appearing because of one particular anecdote that grinds the film to a loathsome halt in the middle of the second act.
Poor structure and poor script rarely leads to good performances, and so it is the case here. Douglas Booth’s Nikki is the guy looking for anything – fame, women, drugs – to fill the hole of absent or abusive parents, but goes about it like he honestly doesn’t care all that much either way. Colson Baker as drummer Tommy Lee is a tad better just because he is markedly different to the others, but fails completely when called upon to do some actual drama, such as in the sections that focus on Lee’s abusive history with partners. Iwan Rheon’s Mick Mars starts out outlining the spinal disorder that seriously effects his health, then goes into hibernation mode as “the serious one”, with the disorder barely ever coming up again. And Daniel Webber’s Vince Neil is just an obnoxious party-boy who undergoes some late-narrative tragedy in lieu of actual change, with a performance that reflects that. None of these people come across as someone that you want to see succeed, even if you don’t wish them any specific harm, and the films framing of them as heroes, replete with bad wigs, thus goes down like a lead balloon.
The Dirt throws in too many supporting players on top of the main four, a conga-line of managers, agents girlfriends/wives and family members, whose involvement essentially amounts to telling the main four “Stop doing that” (they usually don’t). David Costabile, whom I remember fondly from The Wire and Lincoln, is probably the best of them, as the band’s long-suffering manager Don McGhee, but there are some truly awful inclusions here, such as Rebekah Graf’s uninspiring impersonation of Heather Locklear.
Director Jeff Tremaine, best known for his work on the Jackass franchise (what a sentence that is), is probably the perfect person for what does seem a bit like a fictionalised Jackass story, what with the pranks, lewdness and general mayhem that infests the screen with no higher point or purpose. Frontal nudity – and only the female kind, the director lacking the courage to do the same for his supposedly hardcore rockers – is the order of the day, in amounts that gets tiresome five minutes in. The Dirt, I suppose appealing to these still in love with the band and the younger crowd who might yet fall for them, actively embraces these immature slant.
But I will admit that there are times when he actually does a good job, visually speaking. The film is framed and lit-well: when the band plays, the music video-style cinematography pops and there are a few inspired arrangements, like when Tommy Lee breaks from the narrative to outline a typical day in his life from his own drug-addled perspective. The other times the band members address the fourth wall are less good, with too much nod, nod, wink, wink, with the director and writers betraying an ego of Tarantino-like proportions.
The elephant in the room for The Dirt, and also for Bohemian Rhapsody, Straight Outta Compton, and probably for Rocketman and the other upcoming productions mentioned above, is that the subjects all had/have a hand in making them, as producers or writers, and that is a problem. Nikki Sixx is no more likely to craft an accurate three-dimensional portrayal of his life, warts and all, than the surviving members of Queen or NWA. Biopic, done properly, requires distance, so the people making it don’t get trapped with an elongated puff-piece, that is less an example of visual art, and more a sop to the inspirations ego, with just enough bad moments to construct a facade of character without it ever really sticking. When that happens you are likely to get bad films, and The Dirt is a bad film.
While the difference in production schedules is small enough – a few months – that you can’t justifiably consider The Dirt to be deliberately hanging onto the coattails of Bohemian Rhapsody, it’s impossible to lose the feeling that the choice of release date and general feel are anything other than an effort to cash-in. And whatever about the strengths and weaknesses of Bohemian Rhapsody, The Dirt never comes off as intriguing, engaging or entertaining beyond the superficial details. The cast can’t work with the terrible material, the director isn’t suited to telling the story properly and the film just feels fundamentally wrong at every turn, an experience which only rarely captures the energy, gusto and emotion of Mötley Crüe and their music. Worse, it treats too lightly their history of drug abuse, general criminal behavior, misogyny, and most importantly their violence towards women, which makes one wonder how on earth The Dirt was made and released at this moment in time. For all those reasons and more, not recommended.
(All images are copyright of Netflix).