Is the only kind of true artist a tortured one? And is it the pain that makes it art?
In a music industry littered with terrible losses and cautionary tales, that still seems like a question worth asking. Though it’s not one that filmmaker Alex Ross Perry (Listen Up Phillip, Queen of Earth) seems especially interested in answering in Her Smell, a movie that mostly chooses to turn its lens on the train wreck, and then watch the wheels come off.
What it does have at the center is an actress who commits completely to the mess, even if Perry never quite deigns to show us the underlying talent that might justify her terrible behavior — or at least the loyalty of the countless friends, fans, and enablers who suffer the brunt of it.
Elisabeth Moss is Becky Something, a singer so clearly in the mold of circa-Live Through This Courtney Love that it seems almost willfully bizarre that Perry claims she’s not the inspiration (he’s cited Guns ‘n Roses and L7 in interviews, which is fair enough, but also kind of feels like saying what a good hamburger’s really about is the lettuce).
Even as the story borrows so many of the signifiers of ’90s riot-grrrl culture — the Manic Panic hair and torn fishnets, the baby barrettes and three-chord snarls — it feels oddly incurious about the movement itself: the tidal roar of third-wave feminism, confessional bloodletting, and political rage that drove bands like Hole, Bikini Kill, and Sleater-Kinney.
If Becky is as gifted as we’re led to believe, Smell‘s viewers will mostly have to take it on faith. She shrieks, she storms, she insults and cajoles, while her long-suffering bandmates (Agyness Deyn and GLOW’s Gayle Rankin, both great), label owner (Eric Stoltz), and exhausted ex (Dan Stevens) do their best to stay out of the blast radius. When she actually performs, it’s mostly unremarkable, or remarkably sloppy.
But her moods aren’t just stormy weather and smeared mascara; she seems unwell, possibly bipolar. And the script doesn’t really serve her by allowing several extended set pieces — a blistering backstage meltdown; an ugly turn in a recording studio with new acolytes (including Cara Delevingne and Ashley Benson); a final, violent rupture that at least temporarily ends the band — to play out at almost cruel length.
Moss, so perfectly calibrated in everything from her career-making role on Mad Men to her small but brilliant turn in Jordan Peele’s Us, does the best she can with the material here, though it never quite rises up to meet her. As a character study, Smell is nearly all surface; as a rock biopic, it offers hardly any music or biography; as a drama, it just feels like a tease of the stronger, realer, and more illuminating movie that might have been. C+
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