Despite the best efforts of the amazing 2007 spoof Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, the music biopic is far from dead. In fact, last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody proved even the most formulaic entries can end up a runaway success. Her Smell upends that formula by, well, making up its own musician. The latest by writer/director Alex Ross Perry (Listen Up Philip) is a scorched-earth music drama that sidesteps traditional plot in favor of diving headfirst into a drug-crazed hell and seeing what’s on the other side.
Elisabeth Moss is Becky Something, frontman of Riot Grrrl punk act Something She, and she’s deep into a spiral of self-abuse bound to destroy her and anyone unlucky enough to remain in her circle. An early long take follows Becky backstage after a show, roaming from room-to-room — clearly high out of her mind — as she terrorizes everyone in her path, including her bandmates and exasperated ex-husband (Dan Stevens). Even the dude performing voodoo rituals behind her is like, “Hey, chill out.” Perry uses frantic, unbroken takes and heightened sound effects to make you feel just as trapped with Becky as the characters. In the rare moments when the camera lingers on a room after she leaves, it’s like a great relief has washed over everyone.
Moss is one of Perry’s regular players, and Her Smell is most effective as a showcase for the actress’s unimpeachable range. Many films would simply settle to play Becky as a fire-breathing dragon, a total shitshow on wheels, but Moss’s performance contains layers. “She cut the head off her life swiftly and with no mercy,” a bandmate remarks at one point. That line rings true, as it’s increasingly apparent that beneath each of her malicious grins and cutting insults is a terrified teenager who never had the chance to enter adulthood.
The movie’s first half feels like Birdman on heroin, where a director and actor team up to place the audience in an acutely stressful headspace. Becky frequently seems on the brink of exploding yet that doesn’t mean Her Smell is a depressing experience. Rather, it’s a cathartic one. The second half proves Perry isn’t interested in depicting a one-note downward spiral; Becky is eventually forced to confront her demons, and it’s not a spoiler to say she grows in the process.
Anyone with a cursory knowledge of recent music history will be able to make the obvious parallel between Becky Something and Courtney Love. Becky’s disheveled blonde hair and bleeding eyeliner recall the grunge queen’s look during her peak tabloid days, and the (excellent) original music throughout is certainly reminiscent of Hole. Fortunately, Moss’s performance and Perry’s sharp dialogue are remarkable enough to make the character a completely singular creation.
Perry’s filmography has solely focused on people who are borderline toxic in their pretension, whether it’s Jason Schwartzman’s self-absorbed author in Philip or the malignant relationship turmoil in Queen of Earth. Her Smell is a surprisingly sympathetic portrait of one of these characters. Formally, it’s Perry’s most naturalistic work to date, feeling like a punk-rock Cassavetes and essentially composed of about six lengthy scenes filmed with a handheld camera. Like the director’s strongest work, it forces you to hang out with some grating individuals. But this time, they might start to grow on you.