Music

Mötley Crüe’s ‘The Dirt’ Proves That Bands Are Ruining Music Biopics

The modern run of music biopics are all about brand over band - and the more an artist is involved with a film, the more you should be afraid of the depiction.

The Dirt Review music biopics are broken photo

Netflix’s Mötley Crüe biopic, The Dirt, ends with a montage of side-by-side footage showing how hard they worked to re-create footage of the glam metal band in their prime.

There’s clips of the band, Tommy Lee, Mick Mars, Vince Neil and Nikki Sixx watching the actors portraying them perform intercut with their credits on the film as producers — all of it being based on the book written by, you guessed it, Mötley Crüe.

Jump back a few months and two surviving members of Queen, Roger Taylor and Brian May, were doing the awards circuit to promote Bohemian Rhapsody, a film they tried for years to get made and had a lot of say in how it came together — including the hiring of disgraced director, Bryan Singer.

The N.W.A film, Straight Outta Compton, ends with the estranged rappers coming to terms with the death of Eazy-E before it blasts into highlights of Dr Dre and Ice Cube’s careers to-date that builds to the multi-billion-dollar sale of Beats to Apple. Oh, and the film is produced by Ice Cube, Tomica Woods-Wright (Eazy-E’s widow) and Dr. Dre.

History, after all, is written by the victors.

Straight Outta Compton, Bohemian Rhapsody and The Dirt represent the steady demise of music biopics. Artists now work harder than ever to control their legacy, ensure their greatest hits keep selling/streaming and get a film to frame the surviving members in the best possible light. Sure, a film can take liberties to streamline a story but the recent churn of music biopics is more calculated than ever.

Bands and solo artists that find success — no matter how short lived — all have an amazing story to tell, but the execution of biopics has become a micromanaged mess, so where did it all go wrong?

Netflix’s ‘The Dirt’.

The Template

Music biopics once fit in with the annual rollout of films ‘based on a true story’ if they were lucky enough to rise beyond a tele-movie. Throughout the 1950s and ’60s, most films that leveraged a musician built it off their persona, which is how we got over 30 films with Elvis and the loose brilliance of The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night, Help and Yellow Submarine.

The formula of the rags-to-riches tale that accompanies most music biopics began to emerge in the late 1970s with films like The Buddy Holly Story, which got Gary Busey and Oscar nomination, and The Coal Miners Daughter, based on the life on country singer, Loretta Lynn, played by Sissy Spacek who won an Oscar for the role — trend alert.

Artists now work harder than ever to control their legacy, ensure their greatest hits keep selling/streaming and get a film to frame the surviving members in the best possible light.

The tradition was carried throughout the ’80s with La Bamba and even went for a classical spin with the legendary, Amadeus, about the life of composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, that won eight Oscars.

The lives of musicians would continue to inspire big screen adaptations but the straightforward approach loosened a little in the 1980/90s with the way the punk scene was captured in Sid and Nancy, the portrayal of domestic violence was front and centre in the story of Ike and Tina Turner in What’s Love Got To Do With It, and Jennifer Lopez gave a breakout performance in Selena, the tragic story of Selena Quintanilla-Pérez, a Latin superstar who was murdered by a fan.

In 1998, Velvet Goldmine became the ultimate, unofficial David Bowie biopic. The original script was so close to Bowie’s life that he considered suing the producers until they made a deal to re-write the film so it wasn’t so explicit. If a musician wants to send lawyers after a filmmaker it’s probably sign they may be making something worthwhile, and Velvet Goldmine is one of the great music “biopics”, especially for its focus on the glam rock era in the ’70s.

There’s never been a shortage of music biopics, but the turn of millennium would bring with it films that would set a new standard that would be copied, parodied and then weaponised by musicians.

Netflix’s ‘The Dirt’.

The Ring Of Fire

The new decade showed a lot of promise with 24-Hour Party People, which took the approach of not choosing to focus on a band but a whole musical scene. 24-Hour Party People centres on the music community in Manchester, England, and the formation of Factory Records, which had Joy Division, New Order and The Happy Mondays on their roster.

In the same year Eminem leveraged his breakout success into a film based on his life, 8 Mile, that operates more like an underdog sports film than a music biopic, but the fusion worked for the world of rap battles giving it a wide appeal; you could walk into the film clueless about rap.

Between 2004 and 2007 everything changed, and it began with a film about the life of Ray Charles.

Ray took the music biopic formula and revitalised it with a glossy film that was put it forward as a crowd pleaser and a major Oscar contender; built off the lead performance of Jamie Foxx as Charles. Ray works through the major beats of Charles’ life, the difficult upbringing, the highs and lows, while powering through his greatest hits. Sound familiar?

Following in Ray’s success came Walk the Line, the story of the man in black, Johnny Cash (Joaquin Phoenix). Again, the hits are there, and it traced Cash’s rise to fame with moments to reflect on his troubled childhood, battles with addiction and the great love of his life, June Carter Cash (Reese Witherspoon). The prestigious approach paid off and it was a major Oscars contender and earned over $180 million at the box office worldwide.

Ray and Walk the Line personified the modern music biopic to the point where it was paid the biggest compliment in 2007 with the parody, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. Comedy producer heavyweight, Judd Apatow, produced Walk Hard, which starred John C. Reilly as a country singer who needs to think about his entire life before he plays.

Walk Hard pokes fun at every single music biopic cliché and trope to the point where it completely decimates anything that would dare follow. The comedy was a huge flop upon release, but it predicted the trajectory that most biopics would take even though it’s a parody; it’s astounding no producer learned anything from this film.

Thankfully, while Walk Hard was tearing the music biopic to pieces, I’m Not There took the life and music of Bob Dylan and showed the biopics still mattered. The nonlinear film has six separate storylines where different actors (Christian Bale, Cate Banchett, Richard Gere and Ben Wishaw) feature as characters who personify Dylan’s persona or echo the themes of his music.

Many films defy the norm to capture the essence of a musical act but the basic approach is still dominant as artists aggressively control their brand.

I’m Not There comes from the same director as Velvet Goldmine, Todd Haynes, who uses a film built around Dylan to exemplify the impossible job of trying to define a giant figure in our culture with logic. While promoting the film Haynes said, “Dylan is difficult and mysterious and evasive and frustrating, and it only makes you identify with him all the more as he skirts identity.”

Other music biopics that examine the search of identity in music that take more of a slice-of-life approach include Control, based on the life of Joy Division front man, Ian Curtis; Nowhere Boy, the film about a young John Lennon and his relationship with his mother; The Runaways, which profile the 1970s rock group of the same name; and Behind the Candelabra, that looks at the influence of world-famous pianist, Liberace, over the people in his inner circle and the erosion of fame.

Many films defy the norm to capture the essence of a musical act but the basic approach is still dominant as artists aggressively control their brand.

Bohemian Rhapsody Review

Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody.

Print the legend

The Dirt passes off Mötley Crüe’s antics as rock ‘n’ roll hijinks and never stops to consider the band’s misogyny and alleged abuse of women — in one scene, Tommy Lee punches his fiancé in the face on a tour bus, while his disinterested bandmates looks on. Instead, The Dirt desperately tries certify the band’s “legendary” status as survivors.

The film ends with an overblown performance by the real band that’s like a grotesque victory lap with flamethrowers and bad hair dye jobs. The Dirt choses to celebrate instead of interrogating what the band’s excess says about the world and how they were able to get away with it. And with the current political and social movements surrounding sexual harassment, 2019 is the worst time to release this story. To reflect the structure of the book, each section of the film is narrated by a different band member using a voiceover — further emphasising that truth is never going to get in the way of telling a good story.

The Dirt desperately tries certify the band’s “legendary” status as survivors.

Talking to Rolling Stone, director, Jeff Tremaine (Jackass), said: “I was sitting right behind Tommy and Nikki when they were watching it for the first time, and Tommy was getting so psyched when he’d see things like the Sunset Blvd. sign and all the fun stuff at the beginning, he just keeps going, ‘That’s exactly fucking right.’… it’s a crazy responsibility, in a way, to tell their story.”

Which proves, really, that the target audience for The Dirt is Mötley Crüe themselves. “We had the final veto on the script, and we OK’d everything because we thought it was telling our story,” Sixx told Rolling Stone. “We felt it needed to be truthful.”

The Dirt has moments where it shows the band at their worst, but always in a way that’s meant to be lighthearted — such as the disgusting running joke that there’s a woman who lives under a table whose sole purpose in life, by all accounts in the film, to blow the band. Further complicating the film’s sexual drive is its curious fear of male nudity. For a band whose tales of sexual escapades are grossly mythical there’s not one swinging dick. Tremaine keeps the camera focused on female butts and boobs, but the dicks are hidden like dirty magazines; the male gaze dominates this fantasy band camp.

In a similar fashion, Bohemian Rhapsody stripped Freddy Mercury for parts and tried to pass off the band as a bunch of good boys who went home with their wives while their lead singer stayed out partying. The erasure of most of Mercury’s sexual identity, which draws a direct line from his revelry to his terminal diagnosis, is one of the most misguided portrayals in a biopic.

May and Taylor hovered over the production of Bohemian Rhapsody and their influence is indisputable. May posted a clip on his Instagram account where he’s playing guitar on the set opposite the actor portraying him. No wonder Bohemian Rhapsody faltered in trying to define Queen with the suffocating presence of its members who were literally invading the set. When Rami Malek won a Golden Globe for playing Mercury, he thanked the band members involved in the film: “To you Brian May, to you Roger Taylor for ensuring that authenticity and inclusively exists in the music and in the world and all of us.”

Notice the absence of Queen’s bass player, John Deacon. The third surviving member of Queen is an equal shareholder in the band, and is responsible for writing some of their biggest hits, but choses to live in privacy.

A quick Google of Deacon reveals he’s mostly referred to by the British press as a “recluse” but it’s often at the hands of a Queen publicist or May and Taylor speaking about him in a negative context. Deacon’s silence and the band’s attitude towards their bass player says everything you need to know about how May and Taylor operate Queen’s memory like dictators and Bohemian Rhapsody is grand propaganda.

 

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This clip is stolen from @bryanjaysinger, who was evidently filming it on his iPhone. When the BR team were shooting this scene, I happened to be around, so Gwil invited me to have a go ! How did I do, folks ? Well, obviously not quite as good as Gwil ! He’s a trained artist ! 😊 We had too much fun ! I’d like to see the rest of what happened, captured by the film cameras which were still rolling … some day. In case you’re wondering why this solo doesn’t sound like the ‘out-take’ solo in the film, I only had the idea to make that happen later, when we were polishing the soundtrack. In any case, we wouldn’t have had the facilities to do that on the day of the shoot. In the film, you hear a variant take on the Bo Rhap solo which just MIGHT have been the one previous to the final one which made it onto the record! Might ! That’s if it hadn’t been a genius first-take keeper. Ha ha ! I honestly don’t remember ! A million thanks to @mrgwilymlee Bri

A post shared by Brian Harold May (@brianmayforreal) on

Later this year we’ll get Rocketman, the Elton John biopic that is produced by Rocket Pictures, a company owned by…Elton John. The iconic artist may be on the verge of retirement, but it all feels too soon. John’s story is still playing out but now is the right time to control his image before locking the piano in the spare room. The commerce of future-proofing the brand name of an entertainer is becoming ridiculous and biopics are part of the machine.

The commerce of future-proofing the brand name of an entertainer is becoming ridiculous and biopics are part of the machine.

The best music biopics are the ones that keep their subject at a distance in order to interpret the artist in the same way our culture has processed their music. The greatest respect we can show an artist is to approach their story and music from a critical point of view to get the heart of why their work matters. If you want to go all out with a mega happy adaptation — make a damn musical.

Sometimes it’s ongoing. Time and distance goes a long way in allowing us to come to terms with how we value art and the stories we choose to explore. The modern run of music biopics are all about brand over band. The more an artist is involved with a film, the more you should be afraid of the depiction.


Cameron Williams is a writer and film critic based in Melbourne who occasionally blabs about movies on ABC radio. He has a slight Twitter addiction: @MrCamW.