I can’t remember ever feeling more unsettled by a performance than I was watching Elisabeth Moss as a drug-crazed riot grrrl rockstar, precariously balancing her seven-month old daughter with a bottle of booze as she strides from room to room in a dinky backstage lounge, all while delivering a manic, meth-fuelled monologue. Handmaid’s Tale? Hold my beer.
Most rock’n’roll films — even the fictional ones — track the entire span of an artist’s career: The early years spent struggling in dive bars, the supersonic rise to fame, the corrosive effect of celebrity, the downfall, the rise from the ashes, and finally, the comeback.
But Alex Ross Perry’s epically-titled Her Smell largely skips over those hopeful first stages. When we meet Becky Something (Moss), lead singer of all-women grunge band Something She, she’s already a bit past her prime, and on the cusp of a major freefall. The 90s are coming to a close, and though Becky tells fans she’s “not done yet,” most of the people around her are reaching the end of their rope.
Bandmates Marielle Hell (Agyness Deyn) and Ali Van Der Wolff (Gayle Rankin) label owner Howard Goodman (Eric Stoltz) ex-husband Danny (Dan Stevens), admirers and would-be musical successors The Akergirls (Cara Delevingne, Ashley Benson, Dylan Gelula) — all are consumed with trying to manage Becky’s unchecked mental health issues and constant drug use.
The film is full of sharp, interesting performances by women — Amber Heard as former Becky protege turned mega-star Zelda, is particularly magnetic, as are Deyn and and Rankin, who are full, developed characters despite spending most of the film in Moss’ shadow. Ross Perry’s script doesn’t limit these characters to stereotypically sexy female rockstars, instead allowing them to probe depths of nuanced, delicately layered emotions, and revelling in subversive bodies. With a name like Her Smell, you can bet that the camera captures every pore, armpit hair, and grimy, fading tattoo.
Still, this is Moss’ movie from start to finish. With her bleached blonde hair and kohl-rimmed eyes, it’s impossible not to think of Courtney Love, even if Ross Perry claims the film isn’t about her at all. The actress gives a fearless, completely bonkers performance. There’s no vanity here, no ego. Moss disappears entirely into Becky, down to the way she spells out certain words, letter by letter, even in the middle of an unhinged rant, her mascara running down her cheeks as she sweats, drinks, and bleeds. She’s aggressive, mean, and utterly captivating, exuding star quality even as she’s trying to cut someone’s face open with a broken glass bottle.
The action in Her Smell doesn’t feel staged — instead, it all has a “Behind the Music” music doc quality to it, like a fly on the wall of a deranged, debauched tour. What’s more, the original songs, written by Alicia Bognanno and Anika Pyle, are actually good, which gives an aura of authenticity to the film’s many musical moments.
The result is a messy yet ambitious movie.Her Smell is exhausting to watch. Partly, that’s due to the structure, which separates the action into a loose five acts, demarcated with home footage of the band in happier days. But the run-time of two hours and fifteen minutes means that things start to lag in moments that should feel exhilarating. The first sequence, in which Becky wanders backstage with her baby as her friends and family follow her apprehensively, each passing second making it increasingly clear that she’s not in any condition to care for her, is insanely stressful. But other scenes would benefit from a trim to sustain the emotions and tension. At some point, you lose focus, wondering when and if, this all will end. And when it does, you’re kind of too far gone to care.
On the other hand, that’s kind of the point. Watching an addict spew verbal diarrhoea about everything from the circle of life to mostly-imagined, vindictive grudges is hard to uphold for any length of time. And yet Ross Perry and Moss aren’t interested in our comfort. They want to make us squirm.
Unlike Vox Lux, Brady Corbett’s disappointing 2018 film starring Natalie Portman as a similarly disturbed pop queen, Her Smell’s over-the-top stylings are not burdened with self-important messaging about the perils of fame and the evils of commercialisation. Instead, we’re getting a portrait — albeit flawed — of a woman, disintegrating before our very eyes.