I’ve never been much of a fan of rock music, so the whole indie rock scene of the ‘90s passed me by. While I can’t say I’ve warmed to the music that era produced, I do find myself looking back at that time with a more appreciative gaze. It was a particularly fertile time for female rockers, with the likes of PJ Harvey, Courtney Love, and Tanya Donnelly channelling a female perspective into a musical genre that had previously been dominated by men and refusing to sexualize themselves in the way today’s female stars seem compelled to.
Writer/director Alex Ross Perry takes us back to that milieu with Her Smell, a fall and rise backstage drama centered on alt-rocker Becky Something (Elisabeth Moss), lead singer and primary creative force of three piece band Something She, which also consists of bassist Marielle Hell (Agyness Deyn, whose performance is a lockdown for one of 2019’s finest) and drummer Ali van der Wolff (the practically unknown Gayle Rankin with a turn that makes you feel you’ve been watching her for years).
Through five extended scenes, which play out in real time, Perry charts not the rise and fall of Becky, but the arguably more interesting fall and rise. At a time when it seems like every day a new celebrity is ‘cancelled’ by the online outrage algorithm, Her Smell is a necessary and welcome piece of compassionate cinema.
Set over a seven year period, Her Smell opens with the beginning of the end for Becky’s career, as she completes the last sell-out gig she’ll ever headline. Something She’s planned European tour has been cancelled, but Becky is so out of the game on a mix of booze and drugs that she’s packed a bag regardless. Backstage after the performance, Becky acts increasingly deranged, spurred on by the fraudulent guru (Eka Darville) who follows her every move, even turning against her infant daughter when her spiritual adviser claims the child will be her downfall.
The two lengthy scenes that follow see Becky spiral mentally downward. First she falls out with her bandmates during a doomed recording session that sees her psychologically abuse up-and-coming girl rockers and admiring fans The Aker Girls (Cara Delevingne, Ashley Benson, Dylan Gelula) in a terrifying performance that suggests Moss should be the favorite to play The Joker in whatever umpteenth rendition of that character is up next. Becky’s belittlement of her young rivals backfires when she finds herself bottom of the bill at their first major gig, the scene of a cathartic blowout that tips Becky over the precipice she’s been gazing over in the previous years.
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With these scenes, Perry nails the stress of dealing with someone lost to addiction, and Moss is such a monster that some viewers may find watching her petulant self-destruction a complete turnoff. Whether you stick Perry’s film out will likely depend on whether you believe Becky deserving of redemption or not. Personally, I was rooting for her all the way, as even in her worst moments - when she becomes a violent danger to those around her, including her oblivious child - Moss hints that there’s a troubled soul behind the tough talk and molten mascara, even if the closest Perry gives us to a backstory is one crushing line from Becky’s mother (Virginia Madsen) - “You’re more like your father than you know!”
It’s easy to play a villain and turn an audience against you, but the mark of a great actor is being able to essay a truly terrible human and still have the viewer wish you all the best. In the movie’s final two fifths, we see Becky after a year of sobriety, alone in her secluded home, the last thing she owns - she’s even lost her daughter at this point - and the movie becomes a moving story about accepting your past regressions, discarding your ego and relying on the strength of others. Her Smell is ultimately a film about the power of friendship, and the dynamic between Becky, Marielle and Ali is as brutally honest a depiction of the ups and downs of platonic attachment as you’ll see.
After the horrors of the movie’s first half, the closing chapters of Perry’s film feel positively buoyant. There’s a beautiful moment where the guilt-ridden Becky communicates her feelings to her daughter in the only way she can, through song, though tellingly it’s not one of her own composing, but rather a piano cover of Bryan Adams’ ‘Heaven’, the sort of cheesy anthem rocker she likely would have scorned in her previous persona. The contrast between Becky and The Aker Girls - the latter sober and focused on their work but creatively bland - might be seen as a metaphor for how Gen Xer’s view themselves as less compromised than their Millennial successors. But in accepting the simple joy of a piece of commercial pop music and its power to communicate to a wide audience, Becky exposes how for her self-righteous generation, principles are often little more than a mask, as easily wiped away as eye-liner.
“Have you got one more?” asks Becky’s long-suffering manager (Eric Stoltz in a performance that suggests he may be in for a career revival) following a redemptive sober comeback. Let’s hope Perry has many more in him, as between this, last year’s Golden Exits and his previous Moss collaboration Queen of Earth, there’s enough evidence to suggest that he might be our generation’s Alan Rudolph, if not our Robert Altman.
Her Smell - 4 ½ stars out of 5
Directed by: Alex Ross Perry; Starring: Elisabeth Moss, Cara Delevingne, Dan Stevens, Agyness Deyn, Ashley Benson, Amber Heard, Virginia Madsen, Eric Stoltz