Movies about rock bands always face the problem that, if the band is successful, their story is more often than not very dramatic. Sure, any band will clock up a few deaths, breakups, tales of bad behaviour and moments of redemption during a long lifetime, but all too often it’s just the generic stuff of day-to-day egotism as they climb the ladder of success (and no one makes biopics of bands who no one has heard of). And the films are often stymied by the fact that the audience for these movies will all too often be the fans – and they don’t want anything negative. The recent Queen documentary, Bohemian Rhapsody, seems a good case in point, struggling to find drama in the story of a band who were quickly successful. These stories are interesting in book or documentary form; less so as narrative stories.
On this basis, Mötley Crüe and their notorious autobiography The Dirt perhaps offered more scope than most for cinematic entertainment. The Dirt is sensational stuff, outrageous enough to impress the sort of journalists who both hated bands like Mötley Crüe and disapproved of the whole sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, which was of course the entire lifestyle for the band throughout the 1980s. If ever there was a band made for a disposably trashy biopic, then this was it. If nothing else, there was no chance that a film based on this book could be dull, right? And to be fair, the film isn’t dull. But it’s oddly bland even at its most outrageous, having the feel of a made-for-TV biography with added nudity, drug abuse and swearing. There’s something rather empty about it, and perhaps – given the subject matter – that’s fitting. But I rather expected more, somehow.
Weirdly, the Mötley Crüe story is the sort of thing that you’d probably write if asked to come up with a cartoonishly familiar tale of rock ‘n’ roll stardom- the band form, become quickly notorious, sign a record deal and live the high life of fucking groupies, snorting coke and burning through their millions partying all night until things begin to fall apart after singer Vince Neil crashes his car, killing Hanoi Rocks drummer Razzle and permanently injuring two people in the vehicle he drunkenly collided with (in typical Hollywood celebrity style, Neil served less time for this than someone in the UK might for, saying, hitting Jeremy Corbyn with an egg). Bassist Nikki Sixx succumbs to heroin abuse and finally ODs, and egos run rampant, causing the band to fall apart before everyone deals with their issues and reunite. It’s a story that has been carefully and deliberately manipulated – in what might be a nod to 24 Hour Party People (which did the same thing more effectively), the film’s characters actually break the fourth wall to tell us that this is not what actually happened – that situations are exaggerated, characters (like managers) deleted and timelines twisted. It’s playing with the idea that both faulty memory and urban myth are more interesting than the truth, which of course they often are – we rarely invent duller versions of reality. So the fact that the band were the great unsigned act, originally releasing their debut album on their own label, is ignored in favour of them being chased down by Elektra Records (I think the story of them being too ‘dangerous’ for record labels might have been more interesting, but what do I know?), while legendary stories about Ozzy Osbourne snorting a line of ants and drinking Six’s piss are dutifully recreated.
It’s the sheer quantity of Crüe stories that we’ve all heard that perhaps makes the film seem a bit shallow. It all feels a bit like an MOR cover version – the elements are all there, but the end result is a shadow of the original. Only occasionally – like when Tommy Lee gives us a sped-up version of the typical day (wake late afternoon, go to the show, fuck groupies, snort coke, puke over strippers, trash hotel rooms, sleep) – does the film have any sense of style; otherwise, it’s oddly flat visually, when it needs to be scattershot, chaotic and in your face. Jeff Tremaine’s direction is strictly by-the-numbers, and the screenplay is full of empty platitudes and clichéd dialogue. And frankly, the cast really don’t cut it as rock stars, even though Colson Baker, who plays Lee, actually is one (rapper Machine Gun Kelly). At no point could I buy into the idea that this was Mötley Crüe on screen. None of them – and it pains me to say this, believe me – look cool enough.
There are two interesting aspects to this disposably entertaining film. The first is how, although it mocks the band gently throughout – if I was a dullard mainstream film critic, I would’ve already inserted the apparently obligatory reference to Spinal Tap that has to accompany anything about a metal band into this review, but as it, there is definitely an influence of that film here, perhaps fittingly given that the excesses of bands like Crüe were what inspired it to begin with – there’s a certain affection at play too. Maybe because the band were producers, maybe because it’s easier to make a story like this a fun time romp, but it does seem like a lot is somewhat glossed over. Perhaps that’s only fair – it is the Mötley Crüe story after all – but it does make everything feel oddly shallow and the grand tragedies seem to have a ‘woe is me’ attitude. I’m sure the real victims of Neil’s car crash were the two people left with brain damage and the poor bastard that was killed. Of course, I might just be a hypocrite – I’m not a fan of the band (I bought their first two albums, realised that they had precisely one good song, and then never took any notice of them again) and am perhaps less inclined to be impressed by the whole band of brothers thing than I would be if this was about a different group. Nevertheless, it’s odd not to see any reference to the whole hair metal explosion that they effectively started, and only oblique references to how the whole scene collapsed at the start of the 1990s.
The other interesting thing about this 2019 production is the fact that it has been made at all. This is, after all, the era of #metoo, where sexual objectification and on-screen nudity is the subject of fervent disapproval, but here is a film that is not only awash with anonymous topless chicks giving blow jobs and being used up and then tossed aside, but which actually celebrates the guys doing it. There’s something oddly reassuring about the fact that it is still possible to make a film in which smiling groupies deliver blow jobs without it having to explore how this sexual harassment might have traumatised them. Like many people, I’ve looked at films that are not even that old and thought “they probably couldn’t make this now”, so it’s good to see that apparently they can and will (though we have yet to see if there is a backlash against the film).
And you know what? As musically shocking as Mötley Crüe generally were, and as dreadful a legacy as they spawned, they at least feel like a real rock ‘n’ roll band, enjoying the excesses that money and fame bring. I’ll take this over chin-stroking ‘punk’ bands fretting about ‘toxic masculinity’ any day, thank you very much. The Crüe lived every rock star cliché (and even then, they were clichés), but fuck it, why not? If The Dirt makes rock star bad behaviour look like a bit of an aspirational boy’s own romp – and if it does nothing else, then it probably just about manages that – then I’m actually cool with that. No one likes a well behaved rock star.