Tuesday, May 28, 2019

SIFF 2019: Cool and Hip and Angry and Sophisticated and Ultra Clean: Birth of the Cool Reveals Miles Davis in All His Complexity

Credit: Guy Le Querrec / Variety
MILES DAVIS: BIRTH OF THE COOL
 (Stanley Nelson, USA, 2018, 115 minutes)


"Being rebellious and black, a nonconformist, being cool and hip and angry and sophisticated and ultra clean, whatever else you want to call it--I was all those things and more."
--Miles Davis in Miles: The Autobiography

Just as Don Cheadle rasped away as Miles Davis in his underappreciated 2016 biopic, Miles Ahead, Carl Lumbly rasps away as the jazz great in Stanley Nelson's profile by reading passages from Davis's 1990 memoir.

It wouldn't work if Lumbly didn't capture Davis's grumble, so it's fortunate that he does (if anything, he sounds even more like Danny Glover, circa Sorry to Bother You). Carol Bash did something similar in her 2015 profile of Mary Lou Williams, The Lady Who Swings the Band, in which Alfre Woodard gives sympathetic voice to the pioneering pianist and composer.

Nelson (Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Historically Black Colleges and Universities) begins at the beginning with Davis's birth in Alton, Illinois in 1926. To Davis's words, he adds interviews from a wide swath of speakers, including neighbors, relatives, scholars, jazz innovators like Quincy Jones and Archie Shepp, and poet and professor Quincy Troupe, coauthor of Miles: The Autobiography (though Flea and the Roots are mentioned in the official synopsis, they appear to have ended up on the cutting room floor).

Photograph by AGIP / RDA / Everett / The New Yorker
Unlike many of his African-American peers, Davis was born to wealth and privilege, and gravitated to the trumpet as a teenager, but money and talent couldn't insulate him from the racism that permeated East St. Louis in the 1940s, and he longed to make his escape.

It wouldn't take much time. Just after graduating from high school, he was already playing with jazz luminaries Billy Eckstein, Charlie Parker, and Dizzy Gillespie. "The greatest feeling I ever had in my life--with my clothes on--is when I first met Diz and Bird," he remembers. "I was 18 years old."

The experience led him to move to New York in 1944, where he attended Juilliard by day and played 52nd Street clubs by night. By then, he’d already impregnated his high school sweetheart twice (unmentioned in the film, he would impregnate her a third time during a visit home in 1950).

Nelson speeds over this development quickly, possibly to avoid making his subject look worse than necessary, but stating that music always came first doesn't excuse the fact that Davis abandoned his growing family.

If we're meant to find his relationship with French singer Juliette Gréco romantic, it's hard to forget about Irene Birth, the hometown honey he discarded in favor of a more glamorous life. Through Greco, who appears in the film, Davis met the Left Bank's leading artists and intellectuals, like Jean Cocteau and Jean-Paul Sartre, who treated him like an equal.

Andre SAS/Gamma-Rapho Getty Images
Nelson goes on to recount Davis's relationships with key collaborators like arranger Gil Evans, with whom he recorded the 1957 album Birth of the Cool, from which his documentary takes its name--and his descent into heroin addiction. After kicking the habit, he made up for lost time by signing to Prestige, putting together a quintet including John Coltrane, and then making the leap to Columbia.

Along the way, he met Frances Taylor, the dancer who adorns the cover of Someday My Prince Will Come (Emayatzy Corinealdi plays her in Miles Ahead), underwent the surgery that altered his voice, composed the score for Louis Malle's Ascenseur pour L'échafaud, and released Kind of Blue, the bestselling jazz album of all time (certified quadruple platinum in 2008).

Just as Nelson celebrated the sartorial style of the Black Panthers in Vanguard of the Revolution, he does the same for Davis in Birth of the Cool. He was always a sharp dresser, but when the serious money started to roll in, his looks grew sharper yet. Miles in the 1950s set the standard for cool with his crisp white shirts, narrow ties, and close-cut suits.

He wasn't indestructible, though, and money and talent couldn't insulate him from the racism that permeated the US in the Eisenhower Era, even in New York, "the slickest, hippest city in the world." An incident involving three NYPD detectives made headlines accompanied by images of the bandaged, blood-spattered musician. Personally and professionally, he was on top of the world, but he couldn't escape the times in which he lived.

Davis's seventh studio album for Columbia
He couldn't escape his own worst impulses either as he attempted to mold Frances, on the cusp of stardom, into the perfect housewife, marinated in booze and coke, and abused his wife just as his father had abused his mother. He would later regret that he hadn't treated her better, but by then it was too late. The marriage was over.

Intentionally or otherwise, it marked the end of one chapter and the beginning of another, since he proceeded to split with his previous group and put together a new one that included Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, and 17-year-old Tony Williams (all except for Williams, who passed away in 1997, appear in the film). He also met Betty Mabry who helped him to segue from the jazz world of the 1950s and ‘60s to the rock and funk world of the 1970s. Out went the dark suits and in came the low-cut tunics, the over-sized sunglasses, and the patchwork bell bottoms.

It was the era of Bitches Brew and On the Corner. Critic Greg Tate describes the blend of tabla, sitar, and distortion as "cosmic jungle music" made by the "hoodoo voodoo priest of music." It was a magical time that refilled Davis's coffers, but like every stylistic shift, it wasn't built to last. After a series of personal setbacks, he disappeared from public life. Drugs and paranoia consumed his days. Friends were afraid they'd lost him.

Just as Nelson neglected to say what became of Irene, who followed Davis to NYC, he neglects to say what became of Betty. After their year-long marriage, she launched a solo career that would find a new audience in 2007 when local label Light in the Attic began to reissue her 1970s output.

© Baron Wolman, Date Unknown
Davis's propensity to align himself with women of considerable achievement would culminate in his marriage to Cicely Tyson. With her help, he cleaned himself up and stepped into the light again, but Nelson also neglects to note when their union came to an end (they were married from 1981-1989). It's a weird pattern, especially since he treats Frances with so much respect, but that may be because she appears in the film, while Davis and Tyson, who are both very much alive, do not.

The filmmaker moves swiftly through the last several years of Davis's life, which weren't without incident, but seem a little sad, since he looked so frail. Instead of going quietly into that good night, he played every date he could handle and appeared on every talk show that would have him.

I saw him at London's Hammersmith Odeon in 1986 on the Tutu tour. True to form, he spent the bulk of the set with his sparkly back to the audience. Since it was exactly what I expected, I can't say that I was disappointed.

Photo: Getty Images / Vogue
By 1991, Miles Davis was gone. Though you'd expect his passing to mark the saddest moment in the film, the Phoenix-like Davis beat the odds by making it to the not-inconsiderable age of 65, since he was beset by numerous ailments, including sickle cell anemia.  

I don't expect a documentary, particularly one that clocks in at just under two hours, to include every fact and figure, but more details would've been ideal, though Birth of the Cool succeeds in most other respects, not least the way the editorial team (Lewis Erskine, Yusuf Kapadia, and Natasha Mottola) cut it to the rhythm of the music, particularly the montage-style year markers, which comes entirely from Davis's discography.

About her ex-husband, the late Frances Taylor Davis (1929-2018) concludes, "I don't regret, I don't forget, but I still love," which seems as fine a summation of Miles Davis's difficult and brilliant career as any.



Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool plays Wednesday, May 29, at the Egyptian and Friday, May 31, at the Uptown. For more information, click here.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

SIFF 2019: Mark Cousins' Storm in My Heart Interrogates Hollywood's Double Standards

STORM IN MY HEART 
(Mark Cousins, USA, 2018, 117 minutes)

Belfast-born cinema historian Mark Cousins (The Story of Film: An Odyssey), who was just in town with a documentary about Orson Welles, is back with an essay film about two very different 20th Century Fox musicals from Hollywood's Golden Age.

Storm in My Heart is the logical title for his latest effort, a diptych of 1952's Technicolor With a Song in My Heart and 1943's black and white Stormy Weather. One film features Susan Hayward and the other features Lena Horne. Though born on the same day, June 30, 1917, and in the same city, Brooklyn, New York, one woman was white and the other was black. Further, Horne was from a prominent family and Hayward wasn't.

If not for race, Cousins argues, their careers might have looked similar, and they definitely didn't. And in these films, their scenes were even shot differently. If Hayward's performance was indivisible from the film in which it appeared, Horne's was placed such that it could be removed when it played in the South. I was hoping Cousins would return to that distinction at some point, except he never does, so I don't know if this happened with other films in which Horne appeared, but I can only assume that it did.



Cousins starts by presenting the credits for Walter Lang's With a Song in My Heart in full frame before shrinking it to one-quarter size. As he turns the volume down on the Hayward picture, he adds a quarter-size version of Andrew Stone's film to the screen. Russia-born Leon Shamroy shot both films, and the same personnel provided art direction, set decoration, visual effects, wardrobe and costumes, and sound. As Storm in My Heart continues, Cousins moves the frames around the screen and continues to alternate soundtracks. He also uses the blank space for inter-titles.

The frames talk to each other, though it's easy to miss details on the left side of the screen while watching the right. Or vice versa. It's an experiment, and an imperfect one, but it's amazing how often it works, i.e. Horne sings in one frame while Hayward, portraying real-life singer Jane Froman, does the same in the other, except we hear Horne's voice. Consequently, it looks as if Hayward is miming or responding to Horne, but then the audiences, one white and the other black, clap at the same time.

If the focus is on Hayward and Horne, Cousins provides notable facts about Stormy Weather players Bill Robinson, Ada Brown, Fats Waller, and the Nicholas Brothers. They aren't the kind that will brighten your day. Waller, for instance, died five months after the film's release. He was 39. And Robinson, the highest paid black entertainer during the first half of the 20th century, died penniless.

As for Horne, she broke most every racial barrier on the road to stardom, but had to suffer most every kind of indignity in the process. In that sense, Cousins' film is about her more than Hayward, and though it may not have been his intention to make Stormy Weather look like the better--or at least more enjoyable--film, that's exactly what he's done. Granted, only one of the two is a melodrama, so fun was never on director Lang's agenda, and he's downright shameless when it comes to milking the audience's tears.

The oddest part about Cousins' project is that he doesn't give equal time to both films. When the 78-minute Stormy Weather ends, it just...ends. The inter-titles continue to refer to both women, but With a Song in My Heart plays for another 34 minutes, which doesn't seem fair, except Cousins has a final trick up his sleeve. I won't spoil it, other than to say that he doesn't just take on Hollywood's racism and sexism, but militarism, too, since both films hold a sentimental view of American wartime activity.



As essay films go, A Storm in My Heart is one of the better ones I've seen, and I've seen a lot, including those of Chris Marker, Agnès Varda, and Raoul Peck. If anything, the juxtaposition at the end, which makes use of the patriotic song above, recalls Peck's I Am Not Your Negro, the Oscar-nominated documentary he built around a James Baldwin manuscript--and ends with the late Doris Day as a symbol of white suburban complacency.

If there's one thing that sums up Horne and Hayward, as Cousins presents them in his essay, it's that they kept their own counsel. Though Horne had the deck stacked against her in many respects, she never stopped finding ways to make her mark--mostly outside of Hollywood--whereas Hayward had access to more movie-making opportunities, but didn't always make the most of them. I'm not sure that these particular films tell us as much about post-war America as Cousins intends, but they certainly tell us a lot.

Storm in My Heart plays SIFF Cinema Uptown on Sunday, May 19, at 1pm, and Tuesday, May 28, at 9pm. For more information, please click here.

Friday, May 17, 2019

SIFF 2019: Basketball in the Yard in Michael Tolajian's Prison Documentary Q Ball

Harry "ATL" Smith: man of God and man of the Court
Q BALL 
(Michael Tolajian, 2019, USA, 97 minutes) 

San Quentin isn't a medium-security facility, like the one my mom worked at in Eagle River, a town just outside of Anchorage (she served as an institutional counselor before transferring to the city to work as a pre-sentence reporter). Most of the men in Michael Tolajian's Kevin Durant-produced documentary are violent offenders. The director, who doubles as senior vice president for Fox Sports Films, documents a season in the life of the San Quentin Warriors.

The goal of the squad isn't just to give the men something to do with their time and energy, but to contribute to their rehabilitation through teamwork and character-building. Star player Harry Smith, 31, is the son of a policeman and a microbiologist. With only a few months left in his seven-year sentence, he hopes to play for the NBA, but if he violates his parole, he'll end up back in prison. For most of the season, the inmates play against civilian teams made up of Bay Area b-ball enthusiasts, but for the final game, they play the Santa Cruz Warriors, Golden State's G League team. Win or lose, every player except for Smith will remain locked up afterward.

Allan "Black" McIntosh
Though it makes sense to focus on the player with the greatest skills, my heart went out to Allan McIntosh, a non-violent offender serving 25 years to life under California's 25-year-old three strikes law (he's served 21 so far). Though not as young or as GQ handsome as Smith, he came across as the deeper character.

Known as Black, he's the kind of guy who's trying to broaden his horizons by studying Spanish and poring over Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist, which he found relatable in terms of the protagonist's challenges. The civilian world would be a better place with a man like McIntosh in it (Smith, a self-described womanizer, was convicted for an incident of domestic violence).

Tolajian has made a worthy film about a worthy subject, but it wasn't quite as involving as I hoped, particularly in light of other more emotionally raw documentaries about rehabilitative programs, like Brad Beesley's Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo, Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous's The Work (which played at SIFF '17 and aired on PBS's POV), and Signe Taylor's It’s Criminal, which focuses on a collaborative theater program between Dartmouth College and a women's facility in new Hampshire.

I wish the best for all the men in Tolajian's film, which premieres on Fox Sports on May 28, but I wonder if he didn't concentrate on the wrong one.



Q Ball plays SIFF Cinema Uptown on Saturday, May 18, at 12pm and on Tuesday, May 21, at 3:30pm. For more information, please click here.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Charlie Is Not My Darling: Mary Harron Puts a Feminist Spin on the Manson Family Saga

Behind bars, but still under Manson's sway
CHARLIE SAYS
(Mary Harron, 2019, USA, 104 minutes)

After making a film about Valerie Solanas (I Shot Andy Warhol) and Patrick Bateman (American Psycho), it follows that Mary Harron would get around to Charlie Manson, a real-life figure like Solanas and an evil mastermind like Bateman (I don't recall any murderers in The Notorious Bettie Page, but Harron has consistently gravitated towards protagonists with an inability to fit into straight society).

Her first feature in eight years arrives three years after the end of NBC's detective drama Aquarius, with David Duchovny as the head of an LAPD unit investigating the goings-on at the Spahn Ranch, and two years after the release of Emma Cline's novel The Girls, a fictional take on a Manson-type follower. And it beats Quentin Tarantino's Summer of '69 epic Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood to theaters by two months (QT's sprawling film includes many of the same figures, including Damon Herriman's Manson). 

More specifically, Charlie Says draws from Ed Sanders' 1972 book The Family and the late Karlene Faith's 2001 biography, The Long Prison Journey of Leslie van Houten: Life Beyond the Cult. I could also make a case for Olivia Klaus's Life After Manson, a 2014 documentary about model prisoner Patricia Krenwinkel that Harron is likely to have seen (not least because she thanks Klaus in the credits). All of this is to say that Manson and his bedfellows are as much a part of the cultural conversation as ever--two years after his death and 50 years after the events that put him on the map.

Martha Plimpton and Lili Taylor in I Shot Andy Warhol
The good news is that Harron's film isn't really about Manson (played by The Queen's Matt Smith), but about three of the women, Patricia (Sosie Bacon), Susan Atkins (Marianne Rendón), and especially Leslie (Hannah Murray), with whom he was most closely associated (Kayli Carter plays Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, who would, as a solo operative, attempt to assassinate a famous man, a dubious distinction she shares with Solanas).

Charlie Says begins with Leslie's arrival at the Ranch where she meets Charlie and the gang, including Beach Boy Dennis Wilson (James Trevena-Brown) and right-hand man Tex Watson (Gossips Girl's Chace Crawford in grunged-up mode). Charlie dubs Leslie "Lulu," and that becomes her name, because what Charlie says goes. From there, Harron, who co-wrote the script with American Psycho and Bettie Page partner Guinevere Turner, moves back and forth in time from the Ranch, three years in the past, to the California Institution for Women where Patricia and Leslie remain today.

In the pen, the women are locked up next to each other in separate cells, isolated from the rest of the population. With the warden's encouragement, they meet with rehabilitation counselor Karlene (Merritt Wever) who attempts to extricate them from Manson's psychic hold. The backward glances at the Ranch show how they fell under his sway (coincidentally enough, Sway is also the title of Zachary Lazar's 2008 novel about Manson associate Bobby Beausoleil and his ties to Kenneth Anger and Brian Jones).

Sosie Bacon, Hannah Murray, and Merrit Wever
Unfortunately, Harron isn't able to make Charlie any more charismatic than previous filmmakers. When he isn’t singing and strumming in a decidedly mediocre manner, he's doing the hippy-dippy messianic bit we've seen so often before (and without the humor Linus Roache brought to a similar figure in Panos Cosmatos's lysergic noir Mandy). If Smith is more convincing than Aquarius's Gethin Anthony, it's hard to get the balance right with a character who has to prove irresistible to his flock and off-putting to the audience.

More than anything, Charlie is a misogynist creep. To women without any direction, he’s father, lover, and religious leader all rolled into one. In his presence, they no longer have to think; just do as he says. As Patricia tells Leslie, the goal is to kill their egos and become one consciousness--all the better for him to manipulate them into sex, theft, and eventually, murder.

Throughout, we see most everything through Leslie's eyes. Though Murray has appeared in high-profile programs like Skins and Game of Thrones, she comes across as the least experienced actress of the three; more naïve and uncomfortable than her credits would indicate. Intentional or otherwise, it works for the part. She's softer and slower than the other Manson women, aka "girls," but she's also more watchful and cautious. In my high school days, we would've called such a childlike, dreamy creature a space cadet.
If the goal was to make her likable, Harron and Murray have succeeded.

Matt Smith in the 2013 stage version of American Psycho
That said, there's a difference between likable and relatable. The point of the film isn't to show how any young woman could've followed the same twisted path. There have been plenty of other cults, but there has never been one exactly like the Manson Family.

Crucial incidents include Charlie's jubilation when he finds out the Beach Boys have recorded one of his songs, "Cease to Exist" (re-titled "Never Learn Not to Love")--and his rage when producer Terry Melcher, the subject of Jeffrey Melnick's recent Pop Con paper, declines to offer him a contract. It's well-worn territory, but sets the scene for the bloodshed to come. 

As American Psycho proved, Harron knows from violence. The Tate-LaBianca murders take up little of the film's running time, but they make the necessary impact; they're brutal, bloody, and empathy-free. When Sharon Tate (Grace Van Dien), who was leasing Melcher's home with Roman Polanski, begs for the life of her unborn child, Tex is thoroughly unmoved.

Harron avoids most everything that happened afterward, and that seems wise. In prison, even after all they've been through, the women still venerate the man who destroyed their lives. Just as they can't fully grasp what they've done, nor can they fully grasp what they've become.

At 104 minutes, Charlie Says doesn't overstay its welcome, but it takes Harron until the very end to get to that moment of realization. I'm not sure it's possible to make a completely successful film about the Manson Family, and the director dances around the edge of disaster at most every turn, but that moment--and Hannah Murray's ability to sell it--is worth the wait.

Charlie Says opens Friday, May 10, at the Varsity Theatre (4329 University Way NE). Images from IFC Films and The Stage (American Psycho photo by Tristram Kenton).  

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Her Smell: Alex Ross Perry’s Take on the Damaged-Woman-of-Rock Archetype

Elisabeth Moss as "Becky! Becky! Becky!"
HER SMELL
(Alex Ross Perry, 2019, USA, 134 minutes)

I remember being both attracted to and repulsed by the opening credits for Alex Ross Perry's psychological thriller Queen of Earth. The key image is a shadowy close-up on Elisabeth Moss's face. As the title bisects it in elegant pink script, inky mascara pools under her eyes. It's beautiful, ugly, arresting. If you can imagine an entire film that plays like that image, then you can imagine Her Smell, Perry's third collaboration with the actress.

With the '90s alt-rock revival in full bloom, this would appear to be the ideal time for his tale of an all-female Hole-like trio (never mind that Hole was a mixed-gender quartet). Appearances, however, can be deceiving, at least to those viewers hoping for a nice, warm bath of nostalgia.

Granted, Perry, 34, was seven years old when Hole released their debut, Pretty on the Inside, and Moss, 36, who plays Becky, was nine. That isn't to say that they didn't do their research into riot grrrl-adjacent/grunge-era acts like Babes in Toyland, but they were too young to have experienced the phenomenon in real time, no matter how cool their schools or permissive their parents (Alicia Bognanno of Bully wrote the era-non-specific songs, and they're pretty good, if not especially memorable).

Moss as Catherine in Perry's 2015 two-hander
Eric Stoltz, 57, who plays Becky’s manager, Howard, probably remembers the era better than anyone else involved with Her Smell, not least because he's starred in a few music biz films, like John Hughes' Some Kind of Wonderful, in which he fell for Mary Stuart Masterson's drummer "Watts" (of course), and Allison Anders' Grace of My Heart, in which he played a Gerry Goffin figure opposite Illeana Douglas's Carole-King-in-all-but-name Denise Waverly.

With her bleached hair and smeared makeup, Becky looks for all the world like Courtney Love, even if Perry had other artists, like Kat Bjelland, in mind. Her alternately nuzzled and neglected daughter only reinforces the impression, though Dan Stevens, as her ex-husband, "Dirtbag" Danny--who isn't really a dirtbag at all--shares few traits with Kurt Cobain.

As chapter dividers, Perry inter-cuts home-movie excerpts of the Some-
thing She--the impressively bland name of Becky's band--in happier times, including celebratory moments with gold records, Spin covers, and Becky's proud mama, Ania (Virginia Madsen, making the most of an underwritten role). There's mention of a father, but Perry never depicts him.

Similarly, Stevens and Stoltz are fine, but Perry prioritizes the women in this woman's life, from her mother to her daughter, which sets it apart from surface-level predecessors, like Mark Rydell's  The Rose, which drew from Janis Joplin's biography, and the musical iterations of A Star Is Born

Bette Midler in smeared-mascara melodrama The Rose
Perry's film starts on stage, with an appealingly shambolic cover of the Only Ones' "Another Girl, Another Planet," before moving backstage where Becky invites a shaman to curse Danny's girlfriend, Tiffany (Hannah Gross), and rejects the offer of Zelda E. Zekiel (a brunette Amber Heard in Cleopatra eyeliner) to open for her upcoming tour. With no money-making ventures on the horizon, it's obviously a terrible decision, just like every decision Becky will proceed to make. She's rude, she's paranoid, and her ego is too big and too wounded for her to do what's right for her band and her child.

Only 20 minutes into the film, and I had had just about enough. It isn't that Moss, who also appeared in Perry's superior Listen Up Philip, doesn't give a full-blooded performance--Becky is such a drama queen that she evokes over-the-top performers from Ethel Merman to Gloria Swanson in Sunset Blvd--but it's always a risk to build a film around such a grating character.

Olivier Assayas's Clean and Brady Corbet's Vox Lux took similar risks with their traumatized, if resilient singers, except Maggie Cheung and Natalie Portman, respectively, brought vulnerability and sass to their roles. For most of Her Smell's over-long running time, Becky is just irritating.

Maggie Chueng as a Courtney-meets-Yoko widow in Clean
She's so irritating that drummer Ali (GLOW's Sheila the She-Wolf, Gayle Rankin, giving the most naturalistic performance) quits during a recording session, while bassist Mari (Sunset Song's Agyness Deyn, a former model known to date the occasional musician), dulls the pain by way of the coke she stores in her bra. Just when it seems as if there's no one left who can take more of her shit, manager/label impresario Howard's newest signing, the Akergirls, enter the scene.

A photogenic trio featuring Roxie Rotten (Ashley Benson), Dottie O.Z. (Dylan Gelula), and Crassie Cassie (model-actress Cara Delevingne, who is also known to date the occasional musician), they're so happy to meet their hero that they don't realize she's out of her head. They figure it out soon enough, especially when she menaces Ali with a broken bottle before a show while a camera crew documents the whole catastrophic ordeal.

By the time Becky hits rock bottom, I was more relieved than alarmed. Something had to give, and after that, things finally started to get interesting. I just wish that Perry had gotten there sooner. Until then, it felt as if Becky's slow-motion free-fall was never gonna end. Of more interest to me than seeing how low a recording artist can go--pretty low, apparently--is watching what they do after they've lost everything.

The Akergirls featuring model Cara Delevingne 
Her Smell is hardly the first music-oriented film to explore that territory, since Georgia, in which Jennifer Jason Leigh played a troubled Seattle singer, and Things Behind the Sun, which reunited Allison Anders with Stoltz (this time as a really bad dude), also revolved around women musicians dealing with trauma, substance abuse, and redemption.

If Becky's breakdown was a given, Perry shifts into low-key thriller mode afterward, because when you've got nothing left to lose, death seems inevitable; more so considering all the casualties of the era in which Becky plied her trade, from 7 Year Bitch's Stefanie Sargent in 1992 to Kurt Cobain and Hole's Kristen Pfaff in 1994. Perry ups the ante by having Becky predict, earlier in the film, that she'll "probably die on stage."

Though Her Smell begins with a cover, the one that appears towards the end makes the bigger impression. After the storm has passed and Becky's friends and associates have moved on to other partners and projects, she sits down at the piano to play an acoustic version of Bryan Adams' 1984 ballad "Heaven," which topped the Billboard chart the following year.

As a singer, Moss is adequate, but I heard the song in a whole new way--a good way. It's such a touching moment that it compensates for most everything that preceded it, though I'm almost tempted to credit Adams and co-writer Jim Vallance for its success more than Perry and Moss.

Kim Dickens with Elizabeth Peña in Things Behind the Sun
Not until the final chapter does the director finally show his hand. Despite the external trappings, this isn't a movie about the '90s. Not really. It could have been set at most any time. Instead, Perry seems more interested in what we give to other people and what we keep for ourselves, a universal challenge that's only heightened by celebrity. The more Becky gives, the sicker she gets, the sicker she gets, the more she self-medicates, the more she self-medicates, the sicker she gets until she has nothing left to give. As Courtney Love once put it, "Yeah, they really want you, they really want you...and I do, too."

In the end, Becky finds a way to...stop. Perry doesn't explain exactly how she got there; he just shows her acting it out, and that's enough. As a whole, Her Smell is the least successful Perry-Moss collaboration to date, but it's also the most, well, most. There's something about watching a filmmaker go for broke that's simultaneously fascinating and frustrating, even if this one leans more heavily on the negative side of that equation.



Her Smell plays SIFF Cinema Uptown (511 Queen Anne Ave N) May 5 - 7 and May 10, 11, and 12. Click here for more information.