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‘Her Smell’ Review: The Road to Rock ’n’ Roll Transcendence Goes Through the Gutter

Category: Entertainment,Music

Can you separate the artist from the art? Lately that dusty theoretical question has been revived in reference to certain problematic men. How do we respond when greatness and awfulness coexist, or when talent is used as an alibi for gross misbehavior? Usually by fighting among ourselves.

“Her Smell,” Alex Ross Perry’s relentless new film, poses the problem in a different register, and not only because the difficult artist in question is a woman. The lead singer in an all-female trio called Something She, she goes by the name Becky Something. The nom de guerre (Becky is nothing if not combative) suggests both that self-invention is part of her creative program and that it remains incomplete. She used to be Rebecca Adamczyk (she’s played by Elisabeth Moss), and now she’s someone else.

The artist, in other words, is the art. That’s just rock ’n’ roll canon, from Elvis (Presley or Costello) to Johnny Rotten and beyond. St. Vincent is a Becky Something, and so is Cardi B. On a more literal level, Becky’s resemblance to Courtney Love is unmistakable, even if it’s also deniable. Some details track very closely; others don’t. But in spite of that warped mirroring, and in spite of its familiar VH1 “Behind the Music” rise-fall-redemption structure, “Her Smell” is no musical biopic.

It’s a train wreck in five acts, mostly unfolding offstage. We are behind the scenes in the aftermath of one concert and in the anxious run-up to two others. We are in a recording studio during an especially messy session and in the rambling country house where Becky takes refuge after everything falls apart. I say we are there because Perry’s camera is like a human presence: clammy, curious, caught between the urge to follow Becky everywhere and the impulse to run away from her.

That summary isn’t in order, by the way, but disorder is Becky’s method and her muse. Which isn’t quite true of Perry, a highly disciplined filmmaker who has cast Moss in three of his last four features. The more unpleasant people are, the more rigorous his attention to them becomes. His collaborations with Moss (notably here and in “Queen of Earth”) are suites for fingernail and blackboard, unbearable and strangely beautiful. Moss strips away every shred of her charm to reveal her charisma in its rawest state, implicating Perry and the audience in a voyeurism that can feel almost holy.

In rock ’n’ roll mythology, the road to transcendence often passes through the gutter, and “Her Smell” sets out a beggar’s banquet of abjection. Shot (by Sean Price Williams) in a blemish-enhancing palette of smudged makeup and unflattering light, the movie barely leaves its title to the imagination. Its images might induce olfactory hallucinations of spilled liquor, cigarettes, nervous sweat and vomit.

And genius, too. Moss is deep in Becky’s skin, and Perry is steadfastly on her side. Not that he condones or forgives. She is gleefully cruel and monstrously inconsiderate to everyone around her, daring them to fight back or flee. Her bandmates, Marielle (Agyness Deyn) and Ali (Gayle Rankin), are old hands at sitting out her tantrums and deflecting her taunts. Her ex-husband (Dan Stevens) and her mother (Virginia Madsen) are indulgent and resentful by turns. The head of Something She’s record label (Eric Stoltz) alternates between playing the victim and enabling her forays into self-harm.

What does she have to do to drive them away? Who will she hurt the most? Her young daughter? Ali and Marielle? The star-struck punk acolytes who haven’t yet developed antidotes to her toxicity? Herself? These questions are exhausting.

But as terrifying and grinding as it can be — long scenes play out in what feels like real time against horror-movie soundscapes, dread dangling from the camera like a lens cap — Becky’s story is also tender and funny. The music and images ache with nostalgia for the ’90s and early 2000s, when the action takes place. The five chapters spread out over six years or so and are punctuated by home-video-style flashbacks to the band’s earlier glory days. Those clips capture them in the full, bratty ebullience of youth, acting out in ways that foreshadow the darker, heavier times to come.

Perry is a rock ’n’ roll antiquarian for sure. The make-believe CD cases that pop up alongside the final credits look uncannily like real album covers, and other artifacts of the pre-iPod musical universe are equally right. But he also has a revisionist streak, an interest in reimagining the recent past rather than faithfully reconstructing it. The music scene in “Her Smell” is female-centric in a way that feels both pointed and matter of fact. There are male musicians around, but they are marginal figures, husbands and hangers-on, bystanders at the big show.

Which isn’t only about Becky. She has a frenemy named Zelda (Amber Heard), a rival rocker who is Apollo to her Dionysus, or maybe David Bowie to her Iggy Pop. Something She is also entangled with a group called the Akergirls, a younger trio whose sisterly vibe seems like a generational rebuke to the dysfunction that defines Becky’s relationship with Ali and Marielle. (The Akergirls are played by Ashley Benson, Dylan Gelula and Cara Delevingne, who might make you hope for a sequel.)

I don’t think Perry is trying to show that women in music can be just as reckless and vain as men, but rather that he’s trying to take such facile gender-based comparisons off the table to home in on Becky’s inner tensions and contradictions. For her part, Moss varies the volume and the tempo of her performance, calling forth cascades of profane invention and rills of whispery poetry, but she always stays in the same key, the key of Becky.

Becky is a narcissist, an addict, a liar and an abuser. Still, even at her worst — and the movie is all about her worst — she shows the wit and unpredictability that make it hard for anyone to quit her. Some of that resides in her dazzling verbal dexterity. When she’s ranting, riffing and soliloquizing, a torrent of metaphor, allusion and alliteration spills from her mouth. It’s too much to take in, but it keeps you listening.

Her lyrics are more jagged and austere. (The original songs were composed by Alicia Bognanno and Anika Pyle.) “I don’t want to quit/I just want to be in control of it,” Becky sings during the film’s quiet, rural sequence. The line sounds like it’s about substance abuse, and “Her Smell” is unsparing in its attention to the awful thrill of using and the tedium and terror of sobriety. But there is another layer of meaning there, at once plainer and more abstract. The “it” she wants to be in control of, the thing she would rather not quit, is her art. Her life, in other words.

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