For all the foulness of Her Smell’s title, no character in the film directly mentions the odor coming off of Becky Something (a captivating Elisabeth Moss). In a more basic sense, the name comes from the music venue where the film's opening scene takes place. There, we first see Becky and her band, Something She, howling and smashing guitars, euphorically emulating the '90s punk that propelled them into stardom. But once we follow the group backstage, it’s clear the protagonist reeks with a chaotic vitriol that lingers beyond any sweaty post-concert rush.
Hollywood's in the middle of a small film renaissance concerning fervent musicians. From Vox Lux to the upcoming Teen Spirit, the plot beats of a singer’s rise and fall are well-tread regardless of how they’re packaged. What really drives interest in these films — outside of name recognition — is how they mine such an elevated industry to evoke a visceral audience reaction.
Her Smell noxiously rearranges the subgenre in response, relaying Becky’s self-destruction and teetering rehabilitation in five extended scenes stretching across a decade. Grainy home-movie clips of Something She celebrating their early successes flicker on screen in between the sequences, offering only the briefest respite before the present Becky sinks her claws back in. Director Alex Ross Perry has always displayed a keen interest in the chaos surrounding his protagonists, but Becky is arguably the worst of the bunch.
When we meet the weathered riot grrrl, she’s already in the middle of her fading music career and addiction crisis. Becky tears around the venue’s labyrinthian backstage halls, speaking almost exclusively in drug-addled, Shakespearean-esque tirades — much of which, under the heavy thrum of Keegan DeWitt’s score, are discernible to her alone. She might experience brief bouts of manic joy and swear on her swindling personal shaman’s ramblings, but Becky is never far from the throng of people that she terrorizes most — her bandmates (Agyness Deyn and Gayle Rankin), manager Howard (Eric Stoltz), old flame Danny (Dan Stevens) and their baby daughter.
The overwhelming immediacy of her abuse in the first half of the film might compel casual viewers to abandon it early on. In fact, between Her Smell and 2016’s Good Time, cinematographer Sean Price Williams is becoming a connoisseur of capturing neon-tinged panic. But the onscreen nastiness accompanying someone in such a state is so all-encompassing that — like Becky’s long-suffering inner circle — you have a hard time looking away.
As Something She’s impending demise threatens to bankrupt the record label, the signing of a starry-eyed new girl group (Cara Delevingne, Ashley Benson and Dylan Gelula) complicates things even further. In a more conventional story, one of the many supporting characters might’ve been thrown around as a final harbinger of sanity for Becky to cling to or jettison. When a later tantrum drives her to a bloodied onstage rock bottom, the clean stillness that we find her in next feels even more discombobulating.
Perhaps the most surprising part of Becky’s sobriety is that films about musicians rarely showcase this regrowth without cynically indicting the roots of their stardom. Given how unabashedly Perry portrays the horrors of his protagonist’s lowest moments, though, seeing such a repulsive woman get better comes with its own genuine pathos. An impressive one-shot sees Becky perform a cover of Bryan Adams’ “Heaven” as a love song for the daughter she’s largely neglected.
The finale pushes her to the teeth-grinding brink of a relapse, with the pressure of a reunion performance threatening Her Smell’s newfound semblance of peace. It’s a raw summation of the film’s meditations on egotism and addiction: You can make it out to the other side, but not without hard-won hell to pay. As Becky says before the camera gets lost in the blur of backstage lights, “That’s all I have. It’s over.”