“Her Smell” Review: An Unflinching Display of Rock ‘n’ Roll Darkness

“Her Smell” is not a feel-good movie. Its trailer previews a rock band of women, while hinting  at the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll chaos that comes along with it, but it’s hard to prepare yourself for how much it leans into that chaos.

Story by Carys Anderson

Photo Courtesy GQ

Photo Courtesy GQ

The movie isn’t really about the band; it’s a two-plus hour meditation on the narcissism and disarray that appears to be inevitable, maybe even a requirement, of the music industry.

The film tells the story of Something She, the punk band led by Becky Something (Elisabeth Moss). Grainy video camera footage transports us back to the good old days; we first see the band celebrate its first Spin magazine cover story in a perfect 90s callback. But rather than showing the band’s start and rise to fame, these happy memories are quickly shattered by the turmoil of the present (early 2000s, rather), where Becky’s addiction begins to hurt the band.

Across five acts we see Becky’s fall and rise, but the first three chronicle this demise with unrelenting realism. Becky ignores her infant daughter,she puts all her trust in a scam artist shaman (an amalgamation of all the rockstars who dive into spirituality as their careers nosedive) and most of all, she’s abusive to everyone who tries to help her.

This is the real focus of “Her Smell.” Writer-director Alex Ross Perry painstakingly details how Becky stalls the band’s progress, from her rejection of tours despite wanting prospects, to her drug-fueled writer’s block, to her disregard of every last chance she gets. Throughout it all, she lashes out at everyone involved, both verbally and physically.

Photo Courtesy Entertainment Voice

Photo Courtesy Entertainment Voice

At times, these attacks make Becky seem cartoonishly villainous. She speaks in grand, incoherent statements, and her mockings can be a little too on-the-nose to be taken seriously, especially over the dramatic score that soundtracks it all. But it’s clear to see what these blown up interactions mean: Becky, by design, pushes everyone away, but you can tell she doesn’t want them to leave.

At the climax of her mania, Becky arrives two hours late to her gig opening up for her modern-day protegees, the Akergirls (played by Cara Delevingne, Ashley Benson and Dylan Gelula). This is her last shot, and she’s blowing it. As her entourage waits anxiously for her arrival, they discuss what it’s like to be wrapped up in Becky’s antics.

“Every bully needs a weak punching bag,” drummer Ali (Gayle Rankin) sighs, re-entering Becky’s world after quitting an act prior. “What am I going to do, quit? Be nobody?”

“Her Smell” relies considerably on dialogue like this to get its theme across. This sums up the dynamic between Becky and her loved ones: the addict and those in their path, the creative and those relying on her.

It’s hard to watch what ensues when Becky finally arrives, out of her mind. The scene is full of disorienting cuts to show the chaos. You’re never quite sure what you’re looking at, but it’s never pretty.After a mother-daughter falling out and a broken-glass attack on Ali later, the setting shifts.

For the first time, we hear complete silence. The darkness of concerts and green rooms is replaced with the bathing light of Becky’s country home.

It’s clear she’s now clean before she says it.She’s dressed down, alone, making tea. She goes to mark off another day on her calendar. The chaotic cuts are juxtaposed with long shots of calm and mundanity.  

Once again, the act relies on dialogue to tie up loose ends. Becky’s drummer Marielle (Agyness Deyn) and ex-husband Daniel (Dan Stevens) arrive with Becky’s daughter, now much older, and they catch up. Becky’s on the cusp of a year of sobriety, but she’s still dealing with the consequences (read: lawsuits) of her past. Despite all the talking, it’s the most emotionally affecting part of the film, especially when Becky plays music once again. For the first time, we witness the talent she’d been missing, that kept everyone coming back.

With Becky more present, the movie ends with a more equal relationship between her and her bandmates. The worry still remains that she’ll go over the edge, that never really goes away with addiction, but Becky emerges from the darkness with a new musical mission statement:

“I don’t wanna quit / I just wanna be in control of it.”