Her Smell is not an easy movie to watch. Elisabeth Moss stars as Becky Something, the lead singer of a '90s rock band called Something She and her portrayal of a musician who is unhinged, self-destructive and narcissistic is raw and disturbing. Her performance is so unforgettable that director Alex Ross Perry campaigned for Moss to be nominated for an Oscar, although she was unfortunately overlooked.
Music biopics such as Rocketman or movies like Almost Famous that feature a fictional band often have a set cadence: early genius, struggle, success, setbacks and triumph. Throughout this process, the audience is cheering for the musician. Her Smell (Perry has said the title reflects a tradition of women making albums with similar titles, such as L7’s Hungry for Stink) has five distinct acts that spans about 10 years to show the rise and fall of Something She, but it does not bother with retelling a ‘hero’s journey’. Instead, it amps up Becky’s terrifying personality as she rages at everyone in her life and dominates scenes with her monologues and smudged mascara. Even when she is not in the scene, people are either talking about her or scuttling to find her. The show does not start without Becky.
In the early acts, Becky is surrounded by people who have a symbiotic relationship with her, such as bandmates Ali (Gayle Rankin) and Marielle (Agyness Deyn), manager Howard Goodman (Eric Stoltz), ex-husband Danny (Dan Stevens) and mother Ania (Virginia Madsen). They have different degrees of tolerance for her behaviour as she swings from ecstatic to vengeful. Yet, with every cutting remark and physical altercation, Becky is clearly the abuser and her victims put up with it, until they do not.
When Ali and Marielle leave, Becky meets and terrorises their replacement: a young, wide-eyed trio called Akergirls. She believes that all she needs is some fresh blood, people who can just take direction from her while she continues to be the heart and soul of the band. Her narcissism prevents her from acknowledging that her substance abuse has zapped her talents.
Tied up in this drama is Becky’s infant daughter, Tama. It is not conventional parenting to have a child backstage when people are consuming alcohol and drugs, but it is even more uncomfortable to watch Becky cradle her daughter while she is inebriated. When she trips and falls while holding Tama, it is difficult to empathise with Becky. She is the very example of a messy, complicated protagonist who is fast becoming loathsome.
This is an interesting (and potentially risky) way to portray a musician, especially a female musician. The stereotype of rock-and-roll is that musicians are tortured geniuses who live a sex-and-drug fuelled world. But often, it is male musicians who can have this lifestyle without a redemption arc later. A case in point is the documentary biopic The Dirt, which celebrates heavy metal band Motley Crue’s debauchery and drug-fuelled days. In comparison, Her Smell gives Becky her redemption arc in the fourth and fifth acts. It would have been too unconventional to let her live her enfant terrible life till the end.
Moss’ take on a '90s rock star draws a lot of comparison to Courtney Love and her days as lead singer of Hole because of the common punk/alt rock genre. However, a more apt comparison might be the late Amy Winehouse. Becky Something’s and Winehouse’s careers both supported their families and entourage. This blending of creative genius, substance abuse and family-managed finances sometimes meant that the singers felt pressured to perform when they should have sought help.
If there is one quibble about the movie is that it never centres on Becky’s musical talents. The audience is not treated to an energetic performance by the band and there is no montage of their greatest hits. When Becky strums the guitar in the recording studio in the middle of the movie, it only shows how far she has fallen from her successful days.
This is a deliberate move by Perry and Moss. In an interview, Moss said, “For me, the fact that she was a rock star in a band is so secondary. The movie was about an addict, a mother, a person who is destroying her life and everyone in her vortex. She could have been a painter; she could have been an actress; she could have been a writer.”
Towards the end, Becky has sought help and is trying to regain control of her life, music and family. Becky’s shakiness, vulnerability and incoherence are still uncomfortable to watch, but this time she has the audience on her side. When she walks out to the stage for her comeback show, she feels exposed without the substances that gave her a sense of invincibility. To cope, she invites her rocker friends to perform with her.
Becky Something would have never shared the limelight. But the reformed Becky knows that she needs to draw her strength from the support of others, even if it is not on-brand for punk rock.
Her Smell screens at 8.30pm on 25 November on SBS VICELAND and is also streaming at SBS On Demand.