boys in the band: does the world need any more male musician biopics?
In 'The Dirt' and 'Lords of Chaos' we get two variations on destructive, piss-drinking, dick-swinging rock stars. But do we need them?
Netflix's The Dirt
This month audiences are being treated to not one but two feature films about real-life rock stars. Hot on the heels of the success of Bohemian Rhapsody, the archetype debauched 1980s male musician is at the heart of both Jeff Tremaine’s The Dirt, a Netflix adaptation of the wild Mötley Crüe memoir, and Lords of Chaos, Jonas Åkerlund’s portrait of psychosis in the Norwegian black metal scene, in cinemas this Friday.
Of all the musical biopics the world does not need -- and frankly, it’s arguable that we need any -- Tremaine’s The Dirt is high on the list of the unnecessary. Mötley Crüe is a band with close to a dozen domestic and spousal abuse charges between them. A band whose road crew used special code numbers to refer to two types of women: ‘bimbos’ and ‘pigs with lipstick’. Nikki Sixx, Mötley Crüe’s founding member, has been arrested for racist abuse and pouring beer on the head of a black security guard. In 1984, inebriated lead singer Vince Neil was charged with vehicular manslaughter after he drove into oncoming traffic and killed his passenger. He got off with a slap on the wrist, and in Tremaine’s film, one sequence of mild dismay from his bandmates. In The Dirt, Sixx is portrayed as a sort of elegantly wasted ringleader and brains of the operation (damning with faint praise here), personified by actor Douglas Booth and given a cheeky voice-over throughout.
As the band’s real manager wrote in The Dirt, "Mötley Crüe are savages with cash, who care nothing about nobody -- even each other." That’s not exactly borne out by the film. The conclusion sees the band walk onstage together, their backs to camera in freeze-frame, united after a brief spell where lead vocalist Vince Neil left the band. It takes Sixx, who came from a broken home, to rally the boys, leaving us with some truisms about family, brotherhood and male friendship. That such friendship is at the expense of everyone else around them seems to be irrelevant to the filmmakers.
In one instance, drummer Tommy Lee, played by Colson Baker, (introduced to the audience by going down on a woman in full view of an entire party) has his ire raised enough to smack his groupie girlfriend in the mouth. Perhaps this is designed to allude to Lee’s scattered allegations of domestic violence, most notoriously from Pamela Anderson when she claimed that Lee attacked her while she had their child in her arms. In The Dirt, those many situations are telegraphed onto this single scene, where the groupie in question releases a torrent of verbal abuse about Lee’s mother. Of course he smacks her; who in their right mind would let anyone talk like that about their mother? To call The Dirt’s narrative traps manipulative would be to overstate its sophistication, but it’s pretty clear we’re meant to side with Tommy. The neat excising of rape allegations that are mentioned more than once in the memoir should give us a good idea of where the filmmakers stand.
This is only one egregious example of Tremaine’s desire for us to view the boys in the band as lovable rogues, letting them off scot-free again and again. Tremaine, whose previous screen credits include Jackass and Bad Grandpa, seems to see the band as spiritual antecedents to the Jackass crew -- more hard-partying bros who vomit on strippers and streak through hotel corridors.
I’ve watched and enjoyed films about boatloads of unsavoury real-life people: serial killers, monsters, white-collar fraudsters, and even the morons at Fyre Festival. Yet no other film has provoked the existential anguish that The Dirt does: why does this movie exist?
Still, at least there’s room for improvement with Lords of Chaos. Åkerlund’s movie, a VICE Films production, stars Rory Culkin as Øystein Aarseth, better known by his stage name Euronymous. He is the calculating founder of black metal band Mayhem, intelligently spinning a web of imagery around himself as the unspoken leader of a ‘truly evil’ musical subculture. When lead singer ‘Dead’ (Jack Killmer) kills himself, Euronymous carefully photographs the scene to later use it as a Mayhem album cover. He revels in throwing rotting animal carcasses into crowds at gigs and weeding out ‘poseurs’, an obsession he shares with label-mate and fellow black-metalhead Varg Vikernes (Emory Cohen) that eventually drives them into a frightening competition. The supposed ‘evil’ of black metal -- while ultimately childish and ideologically empty -- was so impressive that it drew deeply unhinged people into Euronymous’ orbit, concluding in church-burning, hate crimes and unimaginable violence.
Åkerlund, whose interest stemmed from his own time in a Swedish metal band, builds the story with an evocative eye for the excesses and obsessions of the movement, including dabbling in satanism and the occult. While these matters are viewed with the utmost seriousness by the likes of Mayhem, one of the funnier moments in The Dirt comes in a news segment where Mötley Crüe assert to a concerned American heartland that their hit album is called Shout at the Devil. How could they possibly be satanists if they’re shouting at him? It’s fair to assume the former band might regard the latter as poseurs.
Superficially, Lords of Chaos and The Dirt do share common ground beyond their boys in the band premise and real-life basis. They have pithy first person voiceovers from the prominent members of each band; Euronymous (Rory Culkin) and, in the latter, band founder Nikki Sixx. The opening sequences are also coincidentally similar, with both framing their respective backgrounds as an insipid 1980s monoculture that their bands were poised to disrupt.
The difference is undoubtedly Jonas Åkerlund’s critical distance from his subject in Lords of Chaos. While Sixx’s voiceover is nonchalant and confident through the shakiest of times, Euronymous is shown to be unreliable and insecure. In spite of his morbid posturing, he has a supportive middle-class family and a desire for traditional success. The drivers of male competitiveness, envy and chest-thumping are more extreme in Lords of Chaos, but the impetus is basically the same in The Dirt: prove your rock and roll credentials and your macho ‘authenticity’ in the best way you know how, regardless of the collateral damage. The musical subculture itself is only window-dressing.
In both of these films, we get variations on destructive, piss-drinking, dick-swinging rock stars . While The Dirt obfuscates or laughs off the ugliness, Lords of Chaos has the guts to show it for what it is.