Thursday, May 2, 2019

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

Elisabeth Moss as "Becky! Becky! Becky!"
(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.

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