When it came to the maelstrom of sex, drugs, and violence that was Mötley Crüe’s heyday in the 1980s, few who crossed the hair-metal miscreants’ collective path knew what hit them — not even the burritos. “We’d scrounge up enough money to buy an egg burrito from Noggles,” lead singer Vince Neil recalls about the band’s Sunset Strip days in The Dirt, the 2001 oral history-esque document of the band’s despicable debauchery chronicled by despicable-debauchery-chronicler Neil Strauss. “Then we’d bite the end off and stick our dicks into the warm meat to cover up the smell of pussy so that our girlfriends didn’t know we were fucking anything stupid or drunk enough to get into [drummer Tommy Lee’s] van.”
Neil’s dietary-defiling tale is approximately one of ten thousand less-than-charming anecdotes splayed across The Dirt’s dense, disgusting framework — the stuff of literal legend that, nearly 20 years after its initial publication, has cemented the book’s reputation as an essential document of rock-star excess as well as the perils of drug addiction. It’s also nowhere to be found in Netflix’s just-released film adaptation of the book, which hits the streaming service today.
On the surface, there’s one or two elements that would ensure the film’s salaciousness reflecting the book’s total depraved anarchy — mainly, the fact that it was helmed by Jeff Tremaine of Jackass fame, after languishing in rights-holding hell for over a decade with Curb Your Enthusiasm guy Larry Charles initially tapped to direct. Indeed, there are a few chaotic moments in The Dirt that Johnny Knoxville would admire; there’s the opening scene (almost directly mirroring the book’s first chapter) that concludes with a woman spraying ejaculate to the delight of wasted revelers, as well as a rollicking POV-shot sequence chronicling a day in Tommy Lee’s drugged-out tour regimen.
Metal lore fanatics can breathe easy when it comes to one of the book’s more notorious tales: one-time tourmate Ozzy Osbourne’s ant-snorting, piss-lapping antics are present and more than accounted for. Otherwise, The Dirt is surprisingly not that dirty, a largely dull and über-sanitized filmic treatment of a book that, along with noting nearly every single white line and dirty needle the band came in contact with, documents alleged instances of sexual assault and domestic abuse committed by Mötley Crüe themselves. If the book casts Mötley Crüe as four of the most miserable and amoral addicts of their time, the film comparatively suggests that they were just four rascally guys who just wanted to make music and got a little too carried away when fame came calling.
How did this happen, and why? The first question has more to do with quality than cause, and cross-checking the credits offers something of an explanation; the credited writers are Amanda Adelson (who recently directed the video treatment for Kanye West and Lil Pump’s odious “I Love It”) and television scion Tom Kapinos (Californication, Luciver), the screenplay ultimately penned by Rich Wilkes, who hasn’t put his name to a script since XXX in 2002. The most memorable scene in Tremaine’s last feature film, Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa in 2013, featured its titular character getting his dick stuck in a vending machine; The Dirt’s biggest star is a hilariously out-of-place Pete Davidson, portraying dorky record exec Tom Zutaut. Even in a post-critical world where Bohemian Rhapsody can certifiably call itself “award-winning,” The Dirt fails to elicit little more than a yawn even in its most culturally retrograde moments.
The fact that The Dirt is seeing release off the heels of Bohemian Rhapsody’s massive success is, for the latter film, the happiest of coincidences; with the Elton John biopic Rocketman set to hit theaters later this year, we’re likely to be awash in rock-leaning biopics for at least a few years to come. The Dirt’s success has yet to be measured (and given Netflix’s notoriously inconsistent and evasive stance on releasing audience metrics, it may never be), but given the easy-access ubiquity of the platform it’s hosted on, it stands to reason that it’s gonna reach a lot of eyes and ears.
That latter organ is crucial: Queen certainly weren’t a bunch of nobodies before a single clapboard sounded on Bohemian Rhapsody’s set, but it’s undeniable that the film’s global success introduced the band’s music to a new generation of fans — effectively taking the marketplace real estate that a “Greatest Hits” collection would’ve occupied in decades past. And the same could happen for The Dirt, a biopic about a once-massive rock band that to date hasn’t (and likely never will) achieve any level of cool-kid critical reevaluation. The film zeroes in on Mötley Crüe’s music itself that the book treats as a practical afterthought by design; like so many things existent in or adjacent to the music industry, its mere existence seeks to recontextualize for the sake of pushing product.
And when it comes to that recontextualization, they just might pull it off too — simply off the strength of banking on the assumption that most who see the film itself will take it as gospel without tackling the book, an exhaustive and often exhausting document that’s painful to read even in its brightest moments. In recent weeks, bassist Nikki Sixx has attempted a disinformation campaign of sorts against Strauss’s book — specifically, his documented recollection of an act of alleged sexual assault against a woman committed by him and Lee.
His statement to Rolling Stone on the matter seemingly disavows much of his contributions to the book itself, as much an acknowledgment of his still-going struggle with addiction circa the book’s genesis as it is an attempt to erase the documented past with the film’s newly sanitized perspective as theoretical replacement. The story gained some traction on music sites but garnered nowhere near the level of attention that the trailer for the upcoming third season of Stranger Things, which features the strains of Mötley Crüe’s “Home Sweet Home.” Amidst the narcotic catastrophes conveyed in both versions of The Dirt, it seems that nostalgia is still the most potent drug of them all.