For a film about music and musicians, the soundtrack to Her Smell is less about the songs, and more about the chanting, stomping fans out in front of the stage – in love with Becky Something, and furious with her at the same time.
Becky (a riveting Elisabeth Moss), lead singer with punk rock band Something She, is an artist, a mother, a victim of a voracious industry, an addict, and also a messy, grubby, great big pain in the arse.
Alex Ross Perry’s film is about person vs persona, and what happens when the person can’t cope and retreats into a shell that is meant to protect but often sends them into oblivion. It’s hard to tell whether the sparkles on Becky’s face are glitter or light-reflecting tears.
She’s gone from disruptive, stadium-filling genius, shaking up an industry that periodically becomes bloated and inward-looking, to simply disruptive – a cliché of rock and roll excess hiding a woman in agony (and what greater insult than a creative becoming a cliche).
Time is marked by Becky’s growing daughter, Tama, who goes from babyhood to about 7. Without Tama, Becky’s attempt at redemption could be one or many, set in the past or future, so inured are we to relapses among famous addicts.
Tama hardly knows her mother, though we know Becky all to well. The story is predictable, in music and in this film, and Becky is predictable in her unreliability – so it falls to Moss’s portrayal and the camera to make us as confused as her character.
The juddery camera work at the start, as we wander from room to room, overwhelmed by fake shamanism and Becky’s frightening obsessions, helps create a world of volatility – contrasting with her still-fragile calm as she tries to clean up later on.
She obviously resembles the singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse, who died aged 27. Watching Winehouse’s decline was like witnessing someone slowly being murdered in front of you. In Her Smell cameras are always on Becky, recording her downfall, rubber-neckers on our behalf.
Everyone has terrible skin, pimply from youth, drugs, and too long spent in dark venues and studios. The only scenes outdoors involve Tama playing. No one looks as if they’ve eaten an orange in a decade.
Her ex-boyfriend Danny (Dan Stevens), previously DJ Dirtbag Danny, a tag he now hates, looks after Tama. He’s overwhelmed, always following Becky around a rabbit warren of backstage rooms and corridors – holding contracts for her to sign and their baby for her to mother.
Becky is childish and childlike, giggling with her daughter one minute, collapsing while holding her the next. In fact Becky’s whole life is like the way small children run: tilting forward, momentum keeping them going, until they trip and the earth rises up to meet them.
Apart from record company owner Howard (Eric Stolz), Danny, and Becky’s shaman, this is a film mainly about women, who do care even if their ability to help is hampered by their own addictions or inexperience.
Becky’s band includes her drummer Ali van der Wolff, the epitome of grace under extreme pressure (an excellent Gayle Rankin), and bassist Marielle Hell (Agyness Deyn, very good at northern frustration), who looks like Chrissie Hynde and while struggling with her own demons is still managing better than Becky.
The Akergirls, another trio, are Howard’s latest protégés. Roxie Rotten (Ashley Benson), Crassie Cassie (Cara Delevingne) and Dottie O.Z. (Dylan Gelula), all youth and rainbow hair, are like Something She in their early days. Howard’s financial buffer against Becky, as her star wanes theirs is on the rise. Young, idealistic, and in awe of Becky, they don’t know how to react when hit with the full force of her unpredictability, and look both puppyish and scared.
The stunning, very together Zelda (Amber Heard) easily navigates the chaos around her. Like many of Something She‘s female musical peers, Becky sees her as a frenemy. (There’s a moment when the two bands and Zelda sit in a circle in a pre-performance seance, and everyone uses their real names rather than the ones they chose to fit in. Only Zelda turns out to be be using her real name, which is cool, but even if it wasn’t Zelda would make it cool.)
Moss is superb – terrifying and terrified, dangerous yet a victim, pulling us in, then irritating us beyond belief. Weighed down by financial and artistic responsibility, drowning in lawsuits, retreating into drink and drugs, Becky’s story is all the sadder by its familiarity.
Unable to dig down to the real creativity she used to have, her output becomes one-dimensional, her speeches melodramatic and silly: “alienating the acolytes, vanquish the venerating, exile the exuberant” she says to Marielle in front of The Akergirls, who are unsure whether to be embarrassed or awestruck.
The men are often ambiguous. Howard seems to care but describes his two female bands as “one big business family”. The myth of creativity going hand in hand with addiction gives the industry an easy get-out clause, Becky a necessary casualty so the wheels can still turn.
Later, waiting to perform, a clean but defenceless Becky wanders around backstage. It’s a rabbit warren again, and for a while all routes literally take her back to a drug den, as her friends look for her and try not to think what she might be doing.
Her Smell did take me back to grimy, sticky-floored venues 20 years ago, when I’d see bands for a fiver than walk home with my friend through the streets of Newcastle, carrying our shoes. But it is way too long, at two hours and 15 minutes.
That’s longer than most of the gigs I went to. Watching Moss is never going to be tedious, unlike watching four middle-class ’90s boys pretending to be punk rockers (they probably all work in insurance now). But by the end my attention span and patience were stretched to breaking point.
Though the side details of the film are often interesting, Becky’s situation is not new, which makes it hard to give it a new angle. The two halves feel very uneven – her getting clean doesn’t really move past her physical health to rediscovering her creativity.
It’s such a physically and emotionally dark film that by the end I was more concerned with her family (including her bandmates) than with her.
Still, Moss is a phenomenon – and the movie shines a light into the industry’s dark corners, where the machine is taking advantage of its vulnerable stars before spewing them out, other survivors too weakened themselves to be much help.
Watch the trailer for Her Smell:
The Akergirls “Can’t Wait” from Her Smell (Cara Delevingne, Ashley Benson, and Dylan Gelula):