Movie theaters have been crowded in the last seven months or so with combustible rock ‘n’ roll ladies, from Lady Gaga barely missing an Oscar to Natalie Portman’s unique backstage tantrums grown out of the cycle of school shooting violence eating away at our country since Columbine in the late 90s. Like the glam-set worlds their characters inhabit, each has a distinct flair that’s unmissable.
As the tornadic punk rock singer Becky in Alex Ross Perry’s Her Smell, Elisabeth Moss is perhaps the most unsettling. To liken it to easy airplay analogies, if A Star Is Born is the polished FM pop anthem and Vox Lux is the delicately structured underground/indie-rock fusion breakout hit, then Her Smell is the no wave/DIY punk rock experiment. It may not be for everyone, but those who do find themselves on its airwaves will crest along for an uneasy but rewarding ride.
Unlike the other two films mentioned, however, Her Smell is farthest away from the ubiquitous rise-and-fall tale of a starlet. In fact, writer-director Perry jettisons most of the context of other films and stretches a high-wire act across five scenes of backstage or recording studio tension between Becky (Moss) and most of the important people in her life. I even hesitate to call them scenes and am more inclined to identify them as pressure-pot nervous breakdowns and caustic redemption speeches. Regardless of monikers, Moss handles her role of Becky as something possessed … possessed by rotten fame, addiction and rabid hubris.
All of this comes as an even greater shock because the film really gives no compass for anything before we first meet her and her band, known as Something She. In the opening scene, Becky and her bandmates (played to perfection by Agyness Deyn and Gayle Rankin) have already hit the big time as a home video excerpt shows their reaction to their first magazine cover. These joyous snatches of happier times captured on scratchy VHS images will serve as the punctuation breaks for the scenes over the next ten years as Becky struggles with stardom and addiction.
In the midst of her rages are ex-husband Danny (Dan Stevens) and mother (Virginia Madsen), conveniently placed to witness the brunt of her explosions that are barely kept in the frame. Moss stumbles, stammers and spins around the movie, where dialogue is fast and furious and ambient drum beats and guitar thrums are ever present, like a drug-induced concert inside her throbbing brain.
Outside of her immediate family, Becky doesn’t do her bandmates any favors either, essentially replacing them with three novices (Cara Delevingne, Ashley Benson and Dylan Gelula) who happen to book the same studio space. This prism of musicians and hangers-ons provide the audience for her successive tantrums and veiled apologies.
Her Smell isn’t all toxic, though. Given a slight crawl into the light towards the end, Becky becomes a fragile and complex character struggling for redemption due to very logical reasons. Perry spends 75% of the film making us really despise this woman, and then does something magical by creating a vacuum of hope. I wanted her to make it out alive (to steal from the great biopic of Jim Morrison by Jerry Hopkins and Dan Sugerman). Sometimes in the black haze of rock ‘n’ roll, that’s all one can wish for.
The film opens in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on Friday, April 19.