Her Smell - Review
A brutally authentic image of dwindling fame, burnt bridges, and rock and roll.
The world of rock music is dirty. Filled with jerks, managers, and 10% cuts, it’s no place for those with an ego. Yet every few years since Elvis Presley, there has been a new favorite, a star for the public to devour with their love and devotion. Her Smell targets heroines of the 90s, aping public figures like Courtney Love with searing clarity. It’s a well written, precisely blocked film that often runs like a play, with occasionally corny dialogue and a weak redemption arc; through it all remains Elisabeth Moss, who steals the film at every possible moment, and never fails to put on a show.
Her Smell suffers from being authentic. Unlike the recent music-themed bore Teen Spirit, it is full of difficult personalities, label drama, and divided bandmates. Led by Becky Something (Moss), the Sleater-Kinney-esque three-piece “Something She” are on their last legs at the start of the film. Managers and former husbands frequently contribute that at one time they sold out arenas, and are now playing clubs. The crowd is fervent, however, and show that even with a collapsing personal life, high-octane performers will always have some audience.
Her Smell is about the backstage. Beginning and ending with performance, it runs like a massive theater performance from actors who are high the entire time. As with many groups controlled by their antics, Her Smell is at its best when exploring relationships, not music. Original songs from Bully’s Alicia Bognanno appear sedated next to the vitriol spilled behind the scenes, which may be the point. In other arenas, Becky would be fired, replaced, or at the least hated; in music, she’s a star, even as her life becomes the better story.
Encouragement of toxic behavior is perhaps the most lasting message of Her Smell, something it communicates in its weakest scene. After several meltdowns, one of which skewers upstart band the Akergirls’s burgeoning career, Becky goes through a recovery. The film picks up years later, her daughter now grown, and tensions softened. In that time, Becky has sedated herself, now reserved and with an indefinitely-clenched jaw. In her restitution she is given opportunity to acquaint herself with her daughter, and takes it. She sings a song on piano, plays a friend a demo, and cut: she’s back to performing. The journey to recovery is never an easy one, but by cutting the time taken to get there, Her Smell pacifies Becky’s growth, making her grand return feel more like an exercise in patience as we wait for her to relapse.
Even in its weaker moments, Elisabeth Moss remains the best reason to watch Her Smell. She’s a character you’ll love to hate, a talented musician with an ego the size of her audience’s expectation. Minutes before a show, and she’s nowhere to be found. Two hours after a show was supposed to start, she’s gone. Beyond cliched band antics, Becky Something is a character with emotional intelligence; she smashes a guitar at the beginning of the film, but when she later replaces her bandmates with the three crudely-named Akergirls, the crash is louder. At its most potent, Her Smell tackles what makes someone redeemable, not just the wild life of a punk rocker. By spending time in the dirt and exploring the demented personality of someone poisoned by fame, it easily tops the list of recent power-pop epics like Teen Spirit and Vox Lux; it’s real, and delicately assembled with the foremost attention to Moss’s gargantuan presence, and her relation to all that revolves around her.