There’s not much ground left to cover when it comes to music biopics or works of fiction about the music industry. Whether it’s a rag-to-riches rise to fame and success or the fall of a beloved star, or both, we’ve pretty much seen it done to death by this point. So Her Smell, written and directed by Alex Ross Perry, is familiar territory. However, the film is presented in a unique enough way to set it apart, and a captivating lead performance from Elisabeth Moss turns it into an enthralling piece of cinema.
Punk rock group Something She has a problem: lead vocalist and guitarist Becky Something (Moss) is spiraling out of control during a pivotal time in their career. The band has achieved a notable level of fame but Becky’s antics have begun to torpedo all future endeavors. Fueled by booze, drugs, and her own narcissism, she lashes out at everyone around her, convinced that they’re the ones dragging her down. She insults other artists looking to collaborate or tour together, she verbally abuses her ex-husband and her mother, and she refuses to be a presence in her daughter’s life. Her self-destructive behavior can only lead to disaster, and once it inevitably does, the question becomes can she pull herself together before she kills herself or others? And who is Becky as a person when she’s not performing?
The film is comprised of only five separate scenes, each of them stretching between 20-30 minutes. The first three show Becky at the beginning of her descent into madness, culminating in an incident that brings her career to a screeching halt. The final two deal with the aftermath and her attempts to turn her life around. Every scene is portrayed in real-time; there’s very little editing, which helps further create a sense of urgency and unpredictability. As Becky’s behavior becomes more erratic, so too does the movement of the camera. The scenes are broken up by home-video footage of happier times for Something She, helping punctuate the tragedy of where they end up.
Her Smell does a tremendous job of de-glamorizing the rockstar lifestyle. In addition to its odd title (it gets explained by the end), the film has an aura of grossness and unpleasantness to it. Sweat doesn’t glisten on the performers, it just makes them look grimy and overheated. The score is more of a mounting, uncomfortable noise than actual music, increasing in volume and hostility as the scenes become more and more unsettling. It’s a technique you’d normally see in a horror movie and it works to great effect here, framing Becky’s psychotic mood swings as realistically scary moments. The lighting plays a prominent role as well, coloring some scenes that make you feel as if you’re drunk yourself, in the dark trying to make heads or tails of where you are, while others are flooded with harsh fluorescents or somber, natural light to capture the feeling of a hangover.
The supporting cast is fantastic; Agyness Deyn and Gayle Rankin, who play Becky’s bandmates, are of particular note, as is Cara Delevingne. But this is Moss’ show, and it’s a career-best among an already spectacular acting resume. Moss isn’t just good in literally everything she’s in, she’s downright phenomenal. Her Smell plays like an audition tape for the role of the Joker – Becky is unhinged, manic, and dangerously unpredictable. You never know what Moss is going to do or say next, she’s constantly bouncing back and forth between gleeful and malicious.
Becky, with her head full of drugs and ego, believes herself to be more of a person than anyone else; more intelligent and more enlightened. She employs a shaman that follows her around wherever she goes, cleansing her of negative energy and sinking her deeper into her psychosis. She desperately attempts to alienate the people in her life who care and worry for her whilst surrounding herself with those who enable her worst tendencies. Moss plays her with extremely captivating energy, screaming and violently lashing out one moment and sitting in quiet contemplation the next. Her face will be filled with genuine joy as she tickles her daughter, but the second she turns around to look at someone else, it becomes a snarl. It’s a spellbinding performance, and if this film exists as nothing else besides a way to show off Moss’ immense talent, then that’s fine with me.
Her Smell, despite a message of female solidarity, doesn’t add anything especially new or enlightening to the genre, but its unique structure, execution, and performances make it worth a watch. It’s also the kind of movie where it’s not obvious how it will all play out – at a little over two hours, it can feel too long, but not quite knowing where Becky’s journey will end keeps you hooked. “I don’t wanna quit, I just wanna be in control of it,” she sings. It’s very satisfying watching her try to figure out how.
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Her Smell doesn’t add anything particularly new to the world of music dramas, but a unique structure and an incredible Elisabeth Moss performance make it worth your time.
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