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Dusting off 'The Dirt': Verifying Mötley Crüe's Rock Mythology

Andrea is a film scholar who obtained his Masters in Research of Film (Mres) at Edge Hill University by analysing the music biopic genre.

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Rock biopics are often formed on the mythologized life stories of notoriously excessive rockers who lived and died by the “sex, drugs and rock and roll” lifestyle. Therefore it comes as no surprise that glam metal provocateurs Mötley Crüe finally have their own cinematic depiction with their recent Netflix feature, The Dirt (2019). Fittingly directed by pastime Jackass (2002-2010) director Jeff Tremaine, the dirt is supposedly an accurate adaptation of Mötley Crüe’s published memoir ‘The Dirt: Confessions of the World’s Most Notorious Rock Band’. The title of this text alone seems to be a grandiose declaration of the band’s debaucheries. When discussing the biopic in his seminal work ‘Whose Lives Are They Anyway?’ Dennis Bingham argues that ‘the biopic is by no means a simple recounting of the facts of someone’s life; it is an attempt to discover biographical truth’ (2010: 7). This is especially true with regards to The Dirt as the film has a grand emphasis on the band’s excessive lifestyle and aims to verify just how notoriously provocative and grossly admired Mötley Crüe were.

"Let Me Tell You a Story...Dude."

As often is the case with biopics, archive footage is used to provide a chronological exposition to Mötley Crüe’s era of commercial and chemical excess; the 1980s. This first scene not only sets the film in time but also attempts to summarise the band's individual party antics within a short but truly provocative montage. If you’re familiar with the work of Jeff Tremaine, it appears that Mötley Crüe were just an equally insane but even more obscene version of the Jackass boys. The montage uses fast forward transitions in-between slow-mo obscene images from breaking and entering, alcohol, sex, arson, drugs, and most provocative of all… ejaculation. Almost working as an opening credit scene, textual anchorage is used, along with non-diegetic narration from protagonist Nikki Six (Douglas Booth), to verify who each individual character is representing during their depicted idiosyncratic shenanigans. This montage not only exposes the film's narrative but also sets the film's emphasis on the importance of the band’s excessive private life which heavily influenced their public personas as successful musicians.

To verify these private personas even further each member has their own input on the non-diegetic narrative. The technique is common amongst Biopics as George Custen notes that ‘unlike most films, almost every biopic opens with title cards that place the piece in context or with a voice-over narration that historically “sets up” the film’ (1992: 51). At first the film sets up to be the personal story of bassist Nikki Six especially with a scene that explains his disruptive childhood and toxic relationship with his mother. That is until Tommy Lee (Machine Gun Kelly) disrupts Nikki’s narration with his absurdly self-aware non-diegetic remark of “finally dude my turn, f**k, how much time is Nikki gonna get in this movie?”. As well as Tommy Lee, there is also narration from the other two protagonists, Vince Neil (Daniel Webber) and Mick Mars (Iwan Rheon). Therefore through the use of non-diegetic narration the subjects, who are all equally the producers of the film, have their personal recollection of the band’s history presented. Furthermore, presenting these caricature versions of the band members audibly on top of the visuals allows for personal commentary that verifies or denies the fidelity of what is being depicted on screen.

Tommy Lee's (Machine Gun Kelly) opening voice over narration.

Tommy Lee's (Machine Gun Kelly) opening voice over narration.

The First Gig

A major aspect of any rock band’s mythology is their establishment being something produced by a devine intervention, a eureka moment that verifies their sole purpose is to create this exact project. This is often presented in the rock biopic through the subject’s first performance over-coming adversity from either a “fat-cat” music producer, a loved one who attempts to shackle the subject within the confinement of domesticity, or more generally a tough crowd. According to The Dirt, Mötley Crüe had to face the latter. At first, the band fails to impress the audience with neither their music nor style. Tommy Lee accidentally kicks over his high-hat symbol, and Vince Neil’s gender is questioned by a burly biker who asks “who’s the chick singer?” This upset’s Neil and a breaking point is reached when the biker spits on his favourite white leather pants stolen from his girlfriend’s wardrobe. This tension leads to a fight between the band and audience, which when concluded is met by applaud. This scene essentially exaggerates the mythology of Mötley Crüe’s appealing hyper-masculine aggression underneath their feminine glam metal appearance.

Breaking the Fourth Wall

As well as being self-aware through the use of narration, The Dirt dabbles in a convention that is often used in music biopics, breaking the fourth wall. Unlike the non-diegetic narration, these fourth wall breaks are not confounded to the four band members but are open to external participants within the narrative. Although they consistently appear throughout the film, there are three scenes in particular that utilize the fourth wall break as a means of verifying Mötley Crüe’s rock mythology. The first scene involves the acknowledgment of a sexual affair between Vince Neil and the girlfriend of newly appointed record label signee Tom Zutaut (Pete Davidson). Tom addresses the camera explaining that he eventually found out about the affair but he only had himself to blame as he warns the audience “don’t leave your girlfriend alone with Mötley Crüe.” Therefore verifying the lecherous nature Vince Neil supposedly had with women.

Tom Zutaute's (Pete Davidson) warning to the spectator.

Tom Zutaute's (Pete Davidson) warning to the spectator.

The second scene involves band manager Doc McGhee (David Costabile) offering a monologue in direct-address that confesses his frustration in managing the band. This fourth wall break fittingly brings the infamous Ozzy Osbourne pool party to an end. From witnessing the grotesque images in the scene, Doc’s frustration sounds genuine and frankly accurate. This confession places Mötley Crüe at the top of a hierarchy above many notorious glam metal bands Doc previously managed. Therefore stating that the antics of these bands were mere child play in comparison to the mythologized savagery enacted by Mötley Crüe.

The third scene works as an introduction into what life on the road for Tommy Lee entailed. The scene begins with Tommy Lee addressing the audience, then explaining his daily routine when on tour. The scene transitions into an extremely provocative montage that is shot mostly from a point of view shot. It can be said that Tommy Lee’s daily routine is a like for like mimicry of the infamously banned music video for ‘Smack My Bitch Up’ by dance act The Prodigy. This "a day in the life of" montage makes these sort of obscenities appear as unordinary aspect when being in a band such as Mötley Crüe. Essentially just as routine as the ordinary man's day to day.

Tommy Lee (Machine Gun Kelly) explaining his routine to the spectator.

Tommy Lee (Machine Gun Kelly) explaining his routine to the spectator.

"This actually never happened."

Interestingly the use of the fourth wall break also provides a self-aware mockery of the biopic filmic process. In a similar fashion to music biopics such as 24 Hour Party People (2002) The Dirt uses a fourth wall break to state to the audience that “this didn’t actually happen.” This can be seen in the films very first fourth wall break that involves Mick Mars telling the true story of how Doc McGhee truly met the band. The truth is inherently boring in comparison to the mitigated cinematic version that is presented, and as Mark Twain once famously said, 'don't let the truth get in the way of a good story.'

The mundane version of Doc McGhee's (David Costabile) story

The mundane version of Doc McGhee's (David Costabile) story

Reality Check

Although this does occur, nothing dampens Mötley Crüe’s mythological than the harsh reality that becomes the consequence of such an excessive lifestyle. Predominantly the consequence of reality, or more specifically death, coming into the fray is the theme for the final act of the film. This is especially true with regards to Nikki Sixx’s character as his heroin addiction is presented in a less fantastical fashion to the rest of his chemical indulgences. Although in the beginning the film celebrates the grossly provocative nature of Mötley Crüe, within this moment in Nikki’s narrative his character becomes truly grotesque as he hits “rock bottom”. This is a crucial convention of the music biopic narrative, to verify the antics within a musician’s excessive lifestyle but to then emphasize the consequential downfall.

Nikki Sixx (Douglas Booth) hitting "rock bottom"

Nikki Sixx (Douglas Booth) hitting "rock bottom"

Roll The Credits

After reality becomes a major conflict for the band, the formulaic break-up-then-make-up-come-back story is presented which concludes with an expected freezeframe of the band on stage. As well as conforming to this genre convention, The Dirt also uses its credit scene to verify the subject’s mythology in typical music biopic fashion. This includes snip-its of performances from the real Mötley Crüe, anecdotal interviews that mirror specific scenes in the film, and in a weird form of homage to Jackass, reel bloopers. Interestingly, however, a split screen justification is also presented which includes one side portraying an image of Mötley Crüe ’s original representation and the other side showing the film’s re-representation. These final few seconds of runtime are crucial for the films purpose of verifying the band's mythology as it evidently stresses an illusion to the audience that what they have just seen really did in fact happen.

The real Tommy Lee [left] and Tommy Lee (Machine Gun Kelly) [right]

The real Tommy Lee [left] and Tommy Lee (Machine Gun Kelly) [right]

As music fans, we thrive on a musicians narrative as well as their music. The music biopic is crucially a film genre that re-tells the greatest stories ever told, and The Dirt is definitely no exception to this. Not only do all the techniques discussed above re-affirm a narrative that has already been digested and adored by Mötley Crüe fans, but they also act as introductions to a new audience in their discovery of the band and their notorious rock mythology.

Work's Cited

Bingham, Dennis, 2010, Whose Lives Are They Anyway?: The Biopic as Contemporary Film Genre. New Brunswick, N.J: Rutgers University Press.

Custen, George F., 1992, Bio/Pics: How Hollywood Constructed Public History. New Brunswick, N.J: Rutgers University Press.

© 2019 Andrea Sciambarella