By Betsy Sherman
Her Smell is funny-terrifying, alluring-repulsive, moving-disturbing, era-capturing and timeless.
Her Smell – Directed by Alex Ross Perry. Playing as part of the Independent Film Festival Boston on Saturday, April 27 at 6:45 p.m. at the Brattle Theatre, Cambridge. Opens at the Somerville Theatre on Friday, May 3.
A temperamental star makes a shambles of her own life and quaking wrecks of the people around her. The setting could be the theater, the movies, the opera; here, it’s ‘90s punk rock from the riot grrrl era. Director-writer Alex Ross Perry and his frequent leading lady Elisabeth Moss (Listen Up Philip, Queen of Earth) are playfully conscious that this is a familiar configuration. They succeed in stretching the scenario into fresh territory—and they’re proud of the stretch marks. Her Smell is funny-terrifying, alluring-repulsive, moving-disturbing, era-capturing and timeless. Moss is still best known as a TV actress (Mad Men, The Handmaid’s Tale), but she’s equally affecting on the big screen. Perry finds comedy and drama in the tinderbox that is life in rock band. While celebrating these musicians, and the actresses who play them, he foregrounds the landscape of their faces.
Things start respectably enough. Adrenalin soars as the rock trio Something She, fronted by Becky Something (Moss), backed by Mari (Agyness Deyn) and Ali (Gayle Rankin), wait in the wings before playing an encore for the adoring (mostly female) club audience. Becky steps up to the mike with aplomb as they launch into a cover of The Only Ones’ pop-y “Another Girl, Another Planet” (which serves as a double homage both to ‘70s punk and the 1992 indie film of that title by Michael Almereyda). Then, in the dressing room, the view rotates to reveal a grimy underbelly: Something She is on a downslide. Their European tour has been canceled, and Becky’s in extreme denial.
Fueled by booze, drugs, and the nonsense spewed by the two shamans she keeps in tow; Becky deep sixes an alternative proposition that could at least bring in some cash. It’s an offer to go on tour as an opener for an old friend whose fame has now surpassed hers. Pop diva Zelda (Amber Heard) is amusingly icy, contrasting with Moss’s Courtney Love-like fire. Mari and Ali are getting fed up, and verbal barbs fly among the bandmates. All this woman-on-woman psychodrama, combined with the kinetic camerawork snaking around the backstage setting, makes Her Smell feel like Birdman meets The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant.
Oh yeah, and Becky has a baby, an adorable bundle who brings with her a potential for tenderness; but more often represents a cause for alarm whenever Becky swoops in to hold her. Baby Tama lives with her father, Becky’s downtrodden ex Danny (Dan Stevens), a disc jockey who seems like he’s doing some kind of penance by being bound to the volatile Becky. The other male presence in the movie is Eric Stoltz as record label owner Howard Goodman, who is ever conscious of how the band’s bottom line will affect his ability to pay the mortgage on his beach house.
This is but act one in a two-hour and fifteen-minute journey that’s divided into five acts. Each begins with home-video footage of giddier times: getting on the cover of Spin magazine, passing around their gold record, doing a glam photo shoot. Then the image widens to the stone-cold present. Unspecified amounts of time pass in between acts.
Act two is a darkly comic blowout and an exhilarating bit of cinematic expression. We join Something She in a recording studio, having overstayed their scheduled stretch without producing enough music to fill a new album. Becky is so creatively stalled, it seems like Moss has been caught in a freeze-frame. New England rock fans of a certain age will appreciate her wardrobe, which includes a t-shirt for the magazine Sweet Potato.
Drummer Ali’s last-straw walkout coincides with Howard ushering in his new discovery: young trio the Akergirls (Cara Delevingne, Ashley Benson, and Dylan Gelula), who perform a tasty, tight pop number. Becky spins the situation into a fairy tale — just kidding, or is she? — seducing these guileless Gretels into the witch’s fold as a potential new back-up band. The act is full of thresholds crossed and souls made insubstantial, faces appearing and dissolving as reflections in the pane of glass separating the performance space from that of the unflappable sound engineer and anxious onlookers.
That’s a hard act to follow, and the next one marks Becky’s nadir. It introduces her distressed mother (played by Virginia Madsen), and it returns us to a club dressing room. Now it’s The Akergirls who are headlining with their old idols, Something She, as the opening act — that is, if the show ever happens. Becky pushes the roomful of tensions to the breaking point. As fans of horror will recognize, a display of self-mutilation is the sign of a true monster, one who has nothing to lose.
Act four, taking place a few years later, is about sobriety and a reckoning. Becky is very quiet and very alone, living in a house in the woods that’s eerily reminiscent of the house Gus Van Sant placed his Kurt Cobain surrogate in for Last Days. Dan and Mari come to visit, with Tama, now around five years old. There’s a stripped-down honesty to the interactions in what is, tellingly, the movie’s only acknowledgment of fresh air and sunlight.
The final act brings us back to backstage where all the players unite, and Something She reunites, for Paragon Records’ 20th anniversary show. There’s a repetition of a shot from early in the film: Becky gazing at herself in the mirror — this time minus the smudged makeup and demonic smile — with uncharacteristic jitters. Her wit is intact though; she’s defensive about being seen as “Lady Lazarus.” She initiates a pre-show ritual among the women musicians (the Akers and Zelda included) that proves to be cathartic, and admits that her old self “never knew how to go out there exposed.”
Alex Ross Perry is known for crafting incredibly precise dialogue. In Her Smell, the words are well-honed, but there isn’t a feeling that the actors are tethered to them. Much of the dialogue is extremely funny and well delivered by Moss, Deyn, Rankin, and the others. Perry and cinematographer Sean Price Williams (Good Time) capture the action in long-duration shots and make the most of layered, multi-plane imagery (the character of Keith, the engineer, has his best moments as a reflection). The score by Keegan DeWitt includes a low, chaotic-seeming musical rumble that fiddles with our viscera.
The performances are fine all around with Moss, of course, the standout. There’s a deliciousness to the wholesome name Becky applied to such a gonzo persona. The actress finesses Becky’s stream-of-consciousness rants, her biting (though often cornball) quips, and confetti-throws of pop quotes (“Let the wild rumpus begin!”). Most importantly, she anchors the crucial fourth act, which has to be believable so that the story can proceed. Becky and her daughter bridge the gulf of their long separation while sitting at the piano. Tama asks her mother for a song; Moss performs a halting, then more confident and lovely, version of “Heaven” by Bryan Adams. That encounter is followed by a long talk with the also newly sober Mari; they’ve put away their knives, and can finally have a direct conversation as friends.
Early on, Amber Heard’s ever-poised Zelda asks Mari and Ali archly, “Having fun in Beckytown?” Well, as long as it’s at a safe distance, hell yeah.
Betsy Sherman has written about movies, old and new, for The Boston Globe, The Boston Phoenix, and The Improper Bostonian, among others. She holds a degree in archives management from Simmons Graduate School of Library and Information Science. When she grows up, she wants to be Barbara Stanwyck.