The Dirt is a modestly successful attempt at cashing in on the musician biopic craze, and considering the fact that many biopics like this follow a fairly standard formula, The Dirt makes a lot of the right choices when it comes to what elements of the story are being used. There’s nothing other than the typical “rise, fall, and reinvention” that a band biopic would normally feature, but we’re treated to enough fourth wall breaking, humor, and general debauchery in the first half that the hard-hitting reality of the second half is more effective. Interestingly enough, the film does seem more interested in telling the stories of the individual band members than just regurgitating concert footage, a choice that drives home the film’s best aspect- at the end of the day, I feel like I know these guys better and believe their brotherhood onscreen.
The film follows the formation of the group Motley Crue, starting with Nikki Sixx (Douglas Booth) in his early childhood with his abusive mother through to his early days touring in L.A. as he meets Tommy Lee (Colson Baker). The group eventually recruits guitarist Mick Mars (Iwan Rheon) and vocalist Vince Neil (Daniel Webber), and begin on a life of partying, sex, and drugs as Motley Crue becomes a worldwide phenomenon. As the years go by, the group’s behavior comes back to haunt them as their lifestyle takes a tole on each of their own personal lives and relationships. Sure, it’s not a particularly innovative take, but the idea of a group of friends reuniting as they fight personal demons works exactly for what this film is going for.
It also works because the film is fairly balanced when it comes to each point of view being told, and the actors definitely sell the bond that these characters have. Of the four, I was most impressed by Douglas Booth as Sixx; despite a background in British period pieces, Booth is completely believable as a drug-fueled rockstar, and his scenes dealing with his shattered familial relationships are genuinely moving. Booth is able to capture the image of a broken rebel who always had something to prove, and took out his anger on himself as he struggles with heroin addiction.
Baker’s performance is slightly uneven; he’s playing Tommy Lee with the sincerity of a “Timothee Chalamet in an A24 movie” sort of charm. While this is effective in showing how his relatively stable home life put him in contrast with the rest of the band, the character’s evolution for earnest up and comer to hardcore rocker is somewhat strained at points, although the rougher emotional scenes are still effective as we see Lee’s arc come into focus.
Daniel Webber is a solid Vince Neil, and while the character comes off as a cartoon in the earlier scenes, the character’s hard drop off (which includes a vehicular manslaughter charge and the death of a child) is well handled, with Webber bringing a lot of vulnerability to the role. If there’s a weak link, it’s the characterization of Mick Mars; while Rheon’s performance is terrific, Mars is unfortunately saddled with giving a lot of one-liners and not too many emotional moments, and his story line of dealing with a bone disorder never quite hits the dramatic heights that the other characters do.
In general, the film borrows some of the basic Scorsese-isms (fourth wall breaking, walk and talk, voice-overs) in a way that sets up the story efficiently and effectively, although the “this isn’t what really happened” disclaimers made by certain characters talking directly to the audience are often unintentionally hilarious when considering that the entire movie is most likely an exaggerated version of actual events. Still, it gives the film personality and links us deeper with the characters- we feel like they’re talking directly to us and bringing us into their world.
If anything, the harder shift to more dramatic material feels like the right shift for what the film is going for, as each band member is forced to deal with the fallout of their actions. Perhaps the hard comedy early on, which includes all sorts of genuinely shocking elements, would feel out of place if it was present throughout, but marking a clear tonal line as the band hits rock bottom is a bold enough choice. It feels as if the stories of therapy and rehabilitation are here because the story should be told, and not just to reap dramatic potential.
The Dirt has a lot going for it, and when you look past some of the cheesy moments, convenient framing devices, crass gags, and occasional sentimentality, it’s a nice movie that takes us through the wild ride of Motley Crue’s career. The great performances make for an engaging portrayal of how band-mates become a family over time, so when Nikki Sixx says “all I want is my brother back,” it feels like something of substance. Grade: B