2019, R, 135 min. Directed by Alex Ross Perry. Starring Elisabeth Moss, Agyness Deyn, Cara Delevingne, Dan Stevens, Gayle Rankin, Ashley Benson, Amber Heard, Dylan Gelula, Eric Stoltz.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., April 19, 2019
Call it an implosion in five acts. The rock & roll movie has always been about the rise and fall, about coming to the brink of stardom and either becoming the victim of cruel fate (Control, La Bamba) or voluntarily screwing it all up (The Runaways, Stoned). In a rare exception, actor/musician David Essex split the ascent and plummet across two movies with 1973's That'll Be the Day and Stardust a year later, but it's always about the up before the down. Her Smell is all about the descent.
When Becky Something (Moss at her chaotic finest) stands in the back corridor of a club that's a fraction of the size of venue that her riot grrrl pioneers Something She used to play, it's clear that everything is already in decline. But brace yourself for a free fall. Across five long scenes and a procession of years, Becky commits some fresh new sin to push someone else away – not a deliberate act, but just a toxic hellstorm of emotional and physical violence against those caught up in her wake. In green rooms and corridors, studios and venues, she spirals and combusts, the implied traces of genius evaporating in public. There's a constant buzz of muffled crowd noise and nearby conversations, roadies tuning up and offscreen tantrums, so when there is finally silence it's almost unbearable.
What Her Smell captures is the fate of the anti-rock star, the mid-Nineties female-fronted acts that were going to destroy the label system but ended up just the same self-destructive grist in the mill (wait for the first full song that Becky manages to complete solo for that point to be rammed home with surprising emotion).
It's almost impossible to ignore the traces of Courtney Love in Becky, (especially when her deranged attempts to work with a starstruck rising group are so reminiscent of the failed indie-supergroup Bastard). Really, she's every kind of narcissist, hiring and firing at will, rambling about her dreams, summoning her infant daughter like a puppy, grabbing a beer and talking to her tour shaman rather than playing with her child. Yet the genius of Her Smell is that it's not about Becky. It's about the chaos she causes. Moss and Perry could let her dominate the frame as she does the room, but each sequence is about how everyone else deals with the damage she leaves behind. It's about life in what former protégé-turned-usurper Zelda E. Zekiel (Heard) calls Beckytown: It's her ex (Stevens) and her drummer, Ali (Rankin), confiding in each other about Becky's irresponsibility, and manager Howard Goodman (Stoltz, beleaguered and frustrated) trying to get one last album out of Becky's mess, or bassist Marielle (Deyn) as the last resident to move out of this collapsing neighborhood. Moss makes Becky an icon by staying in the shadows.
For an interview with Elisabeth Moss about creating Becky Something, read Elisabeth Moss Might Just Be Her Own Character, March 8.