Elisabeth Moss dazzles as a grunge rocker in breakdown mode in “Her Smell.”
Something wicked this way comes…and it comes in the form of Elisabeth Moss (The Handmaid’s Tale, Mad Men) shattering every other image you have of her in Her Smell, which screens as part of the 56th New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center this month.
Something She is an all-female alt-rock band struggling to maintain relevance and functionality as it implodes under the strain of the increasingly self-indulgent and unbalanced behavior of its incandescent and unstable lead singer, Becky Something (Elisabeth Moss).
Think shades of Janis Joplin, or, more fittingly, of ’90s grunge queen Courtney Love.
This oddly-titled film—named after the small club where the band is performing a pivotal comeback gig—follows the explosive backstage antics and self-destructive downward spiral of Becky as she threatens to destroy her relationships with her devoted bandmates Marielle (Agyness Deyn) and Ali (Gayle Rankin), her manager (Eric Stolz), her ex (Dan Stevens), and her mother (Virginia Madsen)—all at their wit’s ends of dealing with Becky. At stake in continuing to love her: their careers, finances, safety and sanity.
Like many celebrity rockers, Becky is under the influence of drugs, alcohol, and the demons that drive her creativity. She also has a phony shaman, an absent father, and a riot grrl fanbase who expect her to perform at a combustible level—without understanding the painful source of her brilliance.
Set in the grimy, luridly-lit backstage corridors and greenrooms of music venues and recording studios, the mise-en-scene of Her Smell puts us in the underbelly of the music scene. Beer bottles, overflowing ashtrays, blood, sweat, tears, glitter and angst, all shot intensely with a roving camera, often in closeup.
It’s not a comfortable film, or a nice one. It is shocking and funny, with operatic and empty sequences that leave you hanging on even when you realize you should have quit a couple of hours ago. A bit like a bender. And in this way, Alex Ross Perry’s remarkable achievement is to mimic the visceral state of being of Becky herself. The score by Anika Pyle and Alicia Bognanno is fitting and pulses erratically like a toxic substance in the bloodstream.
Her Smell has the feeling of a documentary, catching seven years of key events as they unspool, like the erratic impulses and outbursts of Becky who—like many people with borderline personality disorders—is verbally brilliant and abusive.
Moss is like we’ve never seen her before: a train wreck. Bloated, bleary-eyed, light bouncing off her bleached blonde hair, teeth exposed and shark-like, grimacing in delight at the pain she inflicts on others. Is she a fallen angel or is she a demon? Will she crawl back from the brink of oblivion to honor the faith of those who have stood by her on the ride to the top? Will she be fully present for her daughter? I want to say it’s a tour-de-force, a bravura performance—but those cliches don’t begin to capture how invested Moss seems in the role. She’s right up there with Bette Davis in All About Eve or Gena Rowlands in Opening Night. Moss also has a producer credit on the film.
Her Smell is both intoxicating and nightmarish, perfectly capturing the feeling of being in the orbit of such a histrionic and toxic creature. You want to leave and yet somehow you don’t want to miss what happens next because you know it will be epic. And it is.
Although Perry has stated that Becky and Something She are not based on Courtney Love and Hole, it’s impossible not to think of that bizarre soap opera episode in rock history; of the uniquely masochistic aesthetic of the grunge era, and of the riot grrl intensity that soon followed.
Because Something She is about to be washed up and replaced by the record label with new girls on the block, the Akergirls—Cassie (Cara Delevingne), Dottie (Dylan Gelula), and Roxie (Ashley Benson). They are professional, deferential, and their sound is upbeat. They are young and functional. They even read sheet music. Will Becky use them or destroy them? Will she sober up or end up as a statistic?
And just when you think you can’t take any more, there is a beautiful reprieve.
Other standout performances alongside Moss include former iconic androgynous model Agyness Deyn who plays a coke-snorting but steadfast lesbian guitarist who tries to make Becky see reason; Cara Delevingne, also playing queer, proves once more that she can act; Amber Heard radiates her usual star-quality glamour as Becky’s polished, successful musical competitor, Zelda E. Zekiel; and Virginia Madsen is perfect as Becky’s long-suffering mother.
Her Smell seems a fitting fractured fairytale for now: what happens to a woman who abuses power? Especially if she doesn’t realize that power is only good as long as it’s shared, and monstrous if it’s used as a replacement for love.