Written and directed by Alex Ross Perry, Her Smell is a uniquely fictionalized take on the behind-the-music rock documentary, suggesting that there is a darker, more complex side to the typically simplistic pairing of success with failure. Spanning across a decade in five lengthy scenes, the film depicts how Becky Something, the front person for Something She, a 90s-era punk/grunge band, spirals out of control as her career and life fall apart, leaving her with an uncertain future.
As a professional musician, I’ve seen a similar story unfold a few times, albeit from a relatively safe distance. The damage is plain to see, which gives Perry the opportunity to zero in on the fragile chemistry that holds a band together in the midst of mounting pressures to continuously create hit songs and tour.
Elisabeth Moss captivates us in the persona of vocalist/guitarist Becky, channeling a lineage of brilliant but troubled performers (think Courtney Love slotted in between Marilyn Monroe and Amy Winehouse). While Moss is the star, she is ably supported by Gayle Rankin as drummer Ali van der Wolff and Agyness Deyn as bassist Marielle Hell.
We begin with Something She’s encore: a cover version of the Only Ones’ “Another Girl, Another Planet,” its famous opening line sung by Becky as a mission statement, “I always flirt with death. I look cool but I don’t care about it.” In a very-90s move, she changes “cool” to “ill.” The crowd goes wild.
The band is filmed in medium shots as if we’re watching from the front row, a thrill sustained by the actors having been trained to hold their instruments with the requisite attitude. Moss, looking elegantly wasted, takes command of the stage. Her face half obscured, Rankin is a percussive whirlwind. Deyn, off to the side, strikes the pose of a rock colossus.
“Another Girl” crashes to an end, Becky tossing her guitar, and the band exits. We follow them backstage, the noise from the guitar changing into fragments of electronic clatter. The effect is disorienting as we adjust from the bright lights of the theater to the underworld of the dressing rooms. Our distance from the ensuing chaos, with Becky at the center, vanishes, our perspective narrowed to close shots that challenge our ability to look past it all.
Through the density of the multiple conversations (bringing to mind the hazy incandescence of Robert Altman) we gather that it’s the end of the band’s tour playing smaller venues instead of arenas. Everyone is burned out, going through the motions of the hard-partying ritual, the scene all the more absurd thanks to the exoticized presence of Becky’s guru. There’s a creeping anxiety as a further point in the band’s downward slide has been reached: the follow-up European tour has fallen through, due to Becky’s canceling shows and breaking contracts left and right.
Becky is smart enough to see the power she holds, and, as her fortunes wane, the more ruthless she becomes to hold onto it. All must curry her favor backstage, which she theatrically refuses without a second thought—the Shakespearean resonances of her insults are by design (as Perry has confirmed). She leaves her estranged husband to raise their child with minimal support. Then she abuses the head of their indie-record label (modeled after Matador/Sub Pop), who, in trying to recoup his losses and revive the band’s career, wants Becky to agree to open for a bigger act who used to open for Something She. And the rest of the band is not immune either–when out of her sight, they reveal, like nearly everyone else around her, worrying signs of codependency.
The scene shifts to an expensive recording studio. Becky is isolated in the front room, aimlessly strumming her guitar. Something She has been in the studio month after month, Becky showing up whenever she feels like it. In the control room, the label head, recording engineer, and rest of the band watch the train wreck. The engineer’s passive-aggressive gestures are priceless. Finally, the label head interrupts Becky and chews her out: not only has the session been a phenomenal waste of time and money; the studio was already booked for his latest proteges, the Akergirls.
Becky charges into the control room, and accuses everyone of betraying her artistic vision, which causes Ali to quit. The Akergirls show up, die hard fans, one of whom is wearing an old Something She shirt (she saw them before they became famous). Becky sizes them up as the new blood needed for the project, and she goes about seducing them in the most cringe worthy ways imaginable—you can see their innocence melt away. It’s too much for Marielle. She runs to the bathroom. Smashing her head into the mirror is not enough to attain catharsis. A snort of coke will have to do for the moment.
Perry doesn’t ever pretend that all of this decadence somehow looks glamorous. And it looks worse when Something She is contracted to open for the Akergirls in a dingy club—a telling detail is a bucket backstage with brown water from a leaky ceiling. True to form, Becky is MIA, the sold-out crowd past the point of impatience. Becky finally shows up, in no condition to play. When Ali (who has rejoined the band) confronts her, she slashes Ali’s temple with a broken beer bottle. No matter what you’ve read or watched about band members coming to blows, this scene is absolutely brutal: the end of the road for Something She.
There’s a mesmerizing power to the story of someone who has come out on the other end of a wild ride. Perry establishes an understated, somber mood for when we next see Becky—in recovery, having been sober for a year. She’s in exile, because her flirting with death has made the prospects of an early end terrifying to her. In the meantime, the lawsuits have piled up, and she’s broke. She’s left with no choice, but to figure out who she is, struggling to let go of her Becky Something persona.
With regards to Perry’s film making, I agree with A.A. Dowd (having disagreed with him on his assessment of Perry’s previous film) when he suggests that Her Smell is a step forward. Perry is less reliant on the past tradition of indie/art cinema to make his point about how people find out too late the cost of what they are willing to lose to gain success.
And Perry saves his most sly tonal shift for the finale. Talked into getting Something She back together for a show honoring the 20th anniversary of their record label, Becky takes a good hard look at her past life when faced with, and ducks away from, the backroom VIP drug scene. She then dispenses with her obligations in barely appearing to care when she gets up on stage. Around her is a rock spectacle—worthy of any comeback narrative—but she’s learned, at the very least, to save something for herself.