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‘Her Smell’ Review: Diary of a Mad ’90s Alt-Rock Burnout

Elisabeth Moss turns in a five-alarm blaze of a performance as a frontwoman who makes Courtney Love look like Mother Teresa

Elisabeth Moss in 'Her Smell.'

Donald Stahl

Fame knocks the hell out of Becky Something (Elisabeth Moss in a five-alarm fire blaze), a ’90’s indie punk rocker who leads a riot grrrl band that she bombards with near-constant verbal abuse. Those backstage tantrums can do damage to anyone who gets too close. Narcotics or narcissism? Pick your poison. Becky chooses both — and you don’t want to get in her way. Can you really commit to a movie that makes you want to bolt for the exits? You can if it’s this one.

How Elisabeth Moss Became a Grunge Icon

Writer-director Alex Ross Perry divides his film into five parts, with flashback breaks to (somewhat) better days revealed in home movies that show Becky being actually excited by magazine covers and gold records. The battles begin when the singer and her Something She bandmates— Marielle (Agyness Deyn, superb) and Ali (Gayle Rankin) — rock the house at a club called Her Smell, then head to the dressing room to have Becky bite their heads off. They’re not alone. Eric Stoltz, the head of the band’s record label, is not spared. Neither is Virginia Madsen as her put-upon mother. And it’s a full out declaration of war for Dan Stevens as the ex-husband who now cares for the baby daughter that Becky can hardly bear to look at. Backstage is Perry’s version of hell, with cinematographer Sean Price Williams (Good Time) lighting the dressing room like a vomit-green trap, which It is, while the camera bangs off the walls like an ensnared beast.

As the action moves on to a record studio where Becky tries to co-opt the Akergirls — Cassie (Cara Delevigne), Dottie (Dylan Gelula), and Roxie (Ashley Benson) — a younger punk band that incites her jealousy, the film seems ready to implode with all the toxic energy coming from a diva who actually keeps a new-agey spiritual guide on retainer. In these scenes, Moss plays Becky like a vampire ready to feed on fresh blood. It’s fitting that the new songs, written by Alicia Bognanno of Bully, kick as hard as this frontwoman does, maybe harder.

That the film doesn’t self destruct along with Becky is due to Moss, whose open wound of a performance is tempered near the end when she croons Bryan Adams’ “Heaven” to her daughter. It’s a sequence that tinges its tenderness with something akin to hope, and Perry lets a quiet fall over these scenes of Becky in seclusion— even the editing calms down as she considers her own sobriety and how it will hold when the next temptation hits her in the face. Perry has stated that both Shakespeare and Guns N’ Roses were inspirations in creating this film. He’s not kidding. Her Smell is a berserker infused a mad poetry. In her third film with Perry, following Listen Up, Phillip and Queen of the Earth, Moss takes a character who makes Courtney Love look like Mother Teresa and exposes the shards of humanity that once vitalized and defined her music. The effect is shattering.

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