Rock star Becky Something (Elisabeth Moss) is self-destructing even before Her Smell begins. Alex Ross Perry’s rock and roll epic opens with Becky’s band Something She playing an encore, and the rest of the movie is a long, languid comedown, as Becky’s life and career implode in slow motion, and then she just as slowly begins to pick up the pieces. Although it’s never explicitly indicated, Her Smell seems to be set sometime in the ’90s, and Becky’s look, attitude and sound all evoke Courtney Love, although she’s not just a fictionalized version of a real person. Becky is her own unique entity, and Perry and Moss (in their third film together) make her completely unforgettable, both for how abrasive and unpleasant she can be, and for how vulnerable and damaged she is underneath the surface.
Her Smell is essentially five extended sequences, three of which are set backstage at concert venues, broken up by home video-style interludes of Becky and her bandmates Marielle Hell (Agyness Deyn) and Ali van der Wolff (Gayle Rankin) in mostly happier days. The story spans a period of years, starting at what turns out to be the tail end of Something She’s heyday. Backstage after that opening encore, Becky is manic and monstrous, prone to sudden outbursts at her fellow musicians, at record label executive Howard (Eric Stoltz), and at her radio DJ ex Danny (Dan Stevens), who brings their young daughter Tama to see the mother who seems mostly indifferent to her daughter’s existence. Instead, Becky insists on listening only to a ridiculous guru named Ya-ema (Eka Darville), who further alienates her from her friends and loved ones.
The band has canceled tour dates and has been unable to record a new album, and the next sequence finds Something She falling apart entirely, as a strung-out Becky can barely focus in the studio, where the band has spent months without anything to show for it. Marielle and Ali both leave Becky behind, and she takes up with another trio of female rockers, the Akergirls, who are quickly disabused of their hero worship. Becky hits rock bottom in the next sequence, once again backstage at a show, as she lashes out at everyone around her, even turning violent. Moss is mesmerizing and sometimes hard to watch in these scenes, giving a broad, loud performance that matches Perry’s mannered dialogue and florid speeches.
Perry and cinematographer Sean Price Williams follow Moss with swirling, disorienting camerawork, reflecting Becky’s turbulent mental state in the roiling imagery. Keegan DeWitt’s score is likewise jarring and a bit unsettling, although the movie’s handful of original songs sound convincingly like lost alt-rock hits, perfectly at home on an old episode of MTV’s Alternative Nation. Once Becky gets sober and attempts to put her life back together, the movie calms down as well, sticking to more static framing and close-ups that capture the characters’ emotions. Moss is probably even better in the movie’s lower-key later sequences, capturing Becky’s mix of regret, defiance and resignation, as she wonders whether she can ever repair the relationships she destroyed. Moss manages to make a single-take solo performance of Bryan Adams’ “Heaven,” of all things, into a heartbreaking moment of mother-daughter connection.
Like Brady Corbet’s polarizing Vox Lux, Her Smell is more interested in examining a woman’s broken psyche than it is in analyzing the music industry, but Perry clearly has a lot of affection for ’90s-era alt-rock, and there’s a recognizable authenticity to Something She’s music and look and stage presence. Perry never tries to mimic the structure of a music biopic, but it’s not hard to believe that Becky Something could have been a real person. Moss embodies her as a complex, messy and deeply flawed woman, and that makes her uncomfortable journey to redemption all the more affecting.