Of the recent trend in female-driven fictional music-centric movies, writer/director Alex Ross Perry’s Her Smell, starring Elisabeth Moss as the lead singer of a band that made it big in the ’90s, revels in an approach that is as crowded and cramped as the main floor of a general admission show.
Where A Star is Born was all broad strokes and grand gestures, Her Smell is an exercise in confined energy and dangerously damaged egos. Perry puts Moss at the center of a tornado, usually one of her own making as the combination of substance abuse, crippling insecurities and the enablers who surround her creates a perfect storm of excess and instability. We meet Becky Something (Moss) and her bandmates (Agyness Deyn as Marielle and Gayle Rankin as Ali) as they perform an encore at a show they’re just wrapping up in a venue much smaller than they’re used to. But the group is clearly past their prime, and when a fellow musician (Amber Heard, with a gem of a cameo in the first and third acts) invites Something She to open for her on her upcoming tour, Becky loses it.
Well, she loses it even more than she already has; Becky isn’t coping well with this change in the band’s status. She’s already all over the place, and in the basement-like setting of a backstage greenroom, all low ceilings and cinderblock walls, her frenetic energy is both captivating and scary, like watching a firework ignite only to get quashed before it can get off the ground. Her bandmates have navigated Becky’s quirks and eccentricities for long enough now that they’re anything but surprised when she launches into a verbose, patronizing monologue about why they’ll decline the invitation. At one point, Ali even questions her own tendency to enable the bad behavior, asking somewhat rhetorically, “What am I gonna do, quit? Be a nobody?” Anything but that.
Throughout, the camera pans around whichever room we’re in—a greenroom, a recording studio, another greenroom—catching Becky’s manic outbursts as much as it does her entourage’s reactions, as they all bounce between getting out of her way (when she’s on her latest rampage) and calling her out on her bullshit (when they think they might actually be able to get through to her). That none of them can is less to do with their shortcomings and more to do with just how dedicated Becky is to her own self-destruction.
Danny (Dan Stevens) is the father of her child, and though he’s also in the music business, he just wants to make sure their kid is taken care of. Becky’s mother Ania (Virginia Madsen) is the epitome of a broken heart, clearly guilty over how she must’ve failed as a parent to see her daughter in such a state of chaos. And the band’s longtime manager Howard (Eric Stoltz) is only as supportive of Becky and her antics as his business sense will take him; he’s not afraid to sue her for breach of contract or cut off their studio time in favor of a younger up-and-coming all-female rock band. Which, as one might imagine, doesn’t sit well with Becky. And we’re back in the tornado….
Perry shot the present day scenes on 35mm film, and it shows; from the concert stage to quieter moments when Becky’s finally sober and still, there’s a lived-in grain to the film. Glimpses of the band’s earlier years are spliced in at a 4:3 aspect ratio like old home movies; even back then, Becky was boisterous and over-the-top, but at least she was able to truly collaborate, to fulfill her end of any business deals, to show up when the band needed her. The whole film clocks in at a generous 2 hours and 15 minutes and while a slimmer cut might have been possible (we get it, Alex—you write killer dialogue!), by the end you’ll be grateful Perry gives us so much time with Becky. Like anyone who’s struggling—with addiction, with the ending of a chapter in life—she’s scared to death and overcompensating in unhealthy, sometimes violent ways.
Every one of Moss’ scenes is exhausting to watch, and that’s not a dig; she sees the metaphorical line of the scene and barrels right past it in order to deliver a performance that’s practically tangible. One can only imagine how tired the actress must’ve been after days and weeks living as Becky, considering all the energy it seems to take to deliver such a kinetic, committed performance. Her monologues are dense and delivered at quite a clip, and in the film’s most intense moments, they’re fairly physical, too. Moss has established herself over the course of her career as a reliable lead in prestige episodic pieces; with Her Smell, she adds an impressive line item to her growing film resume (The Square, Us).
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