01 April 2019

The tricky balance of adapting music to screen (or why Lords of Chaos is a much better film than The Dirt)

by Remfry Dedman

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In a fairly uncharacteristic move for the film industry, two movies have been released just one week apart (in the UK at least) which are both firmly entrenched in a consistently misunderstood and misrepresented music genre; metal.

The first, distributed worldwide on Netflix, is the long-awaited screen adaption of The Dirt, a biopic of the multi-narrated autobiography of LA’s sleaziest glam-metal reprobates Mötley Crüe. The book, released in 2001 and co-written by New York Times writer Neil Strauss, is a fascinating, often contradictory account of their swift rise and spectacular fall. It’s a very smart book about an incredibly stupid band. The film on the other hand is a fairly rudimentary plod through the book’s most salacious and obnoxious lowlights which revels in the band’s excesses but struggles when events take a turn for the disastrous. It’s essentially Entourage on the Sunset Strip but with even less likeable characters (hard to imagine I know).

Lords of Chaos (released in cinemas last Friday) is also based on a book which recounts real events but is an altogether different kettle of rakfish. The film provides a bleak and uncompromising portrayal of the relationship between members of Norweigan black metal pioneers Mayhem. It’s a film that attempts to understand the actions of unbalanced, disturbed men who are locked into a macabre competition of one-upmanship which quickly spirals out of control. The film never excuses its protagonist’s actions (it would be pretty depraved if it did), even going so far as to mock their ideology, an ill thought-out amalgamation of Satanism, paganism and Nazism that falters at the merest hint of scrutiny.

Both films have received generally middling to poor reviews from critics, with a few notable exceptions. I would say The Dirt, in the main, deserves the flak it’s received, containing about as much artistic value as an episode of the hard-hitting wang and foof exposé Naked Attraction. But Lords of Chaos is a much more interesting film than many of the negative reviews suggest. It’s not flawless by any means but it does provide a compelling insight into how a twisted dogma can indoctrinate a group of people and spur them on to enact horrific deeds. You could take that concept and apply it to terrorism say, or suicide cults or even organised religion (a thesis the film’s protagonists would likely be on board with).

I can’t help but think that the disparity between the quality of these films (and there is a huge disparity, despite what the reviews might suggest) is all down to authenticity. Jonas Åkerlund, the director of Lords of Chaos, has been firmly entrenched in music for pretty much his whole career, directing music videos and concert footage for a wide variety of artists including Rammstein, Pink, The Smashing Pumpkins, Moby, Robbie Williams, The Rolling Stones, U2, Pussy Riot, Sigur Rós, Metallica, Taylor Swift, Roxette, The Prodigy, Lady Gaga, Candlemass, Queens of the Stone Age and Madonna. Not only that, but he played drums in Swedish black metal band Bathory. Critics (mainly black metal purists who dismiss the events depicted in Lords of Chaos as either grossly distorted or entirely fictitious) will point out that Åkerlund was only in the band between 1983 – 84. I would argue that’s long enough to understand the mentality and desire of extreme metal bands to push things to their absolute limit. The protagonists of Lords of Chaos falter by taking this mentality beyond the music they create and into their real life interactions but it’s vital to understand the impulse to push things beyond commonly excepted boundaries if you’re going to depict people who end up taking things way too far.  

The Dirt director Jeff Tremaine’s credentials in comparison to Åkerlund’s are sketchy at best. Tremaine is most famous for co-creating early 2000s human-punchbag cringe comedy Jackass. His feature film directing credits are limited to the four films that spun off from that franchise (The Movie, Number 2, 3D and Bad Grandpa). The first three Jackass films don’t even attempt to tell a coherent narrative, being little more than feature-length episodes of the TV Series with a bigger budget. So perhaps the task of translating an extraordinarily detailed and thoroughly researched 431-page tome with multiple conflicting narratives should have been given to a director who has previous experience creating a coherent narrative film?

To cut Tremaine some slack, maybe they should have given him more than 108 minutes in which to tell The Dirt’s deceivingly complex story, especially in an era and on a platform where long-form television is often created and executed so expertly. My guess is he was chosen to direct because there are parallels between the Jackass crew and the Mötley Crüe, certainly in terms of behaviour and shock value. One infamous scene in The Dirt featuring Ozzy Osborne (played by Tony Cavalero, although a toilet brush with teeth would have put in just as decent a performance) could have easily been a piss-poor Jackass stunt. But the end product is testament to the fact that these parallels were not enough to make Tremaine the right person for the job.

Defenders of The Dirt (for there are plenty of the people in the world with truly appalling taste in film, as the success of Adam Sandler attests) will likely point out the fact that Mötley Crüe themselves were executive producers on the film. Surely this alone gives the film an air of authenticity? Considering the band can barely get their own versions of events to line up with one another (as the book ably demonstrates, the film less so) I’m not sure their presence would have been to the film’s benefit. In fact, I wager that having them on set (footage played out during the credits shows they were on set for at least some of the film’s production) would more likely be a hindrance than an asset, given that the egos involved would demand their portrayal to be in the best possible light (an extraordinarily difficult task given the events of the movie).

Maybe the lesson here is that film-makers need to have a certain amount of expertise or proximity to their subject(s) without being too close to them (or even being them) in order to adapt real events to film. It seems best to have a deep understanding of the material without being so close to it that all objectivity is lost. Or maybe this rule is simply too broad to apply to all movies based on true events. Either way, I think music is generally served much better on film when there is expertise and knowledge mixed with objective distance.