Elisabeth Moss is a primal, predatory force in “Her Smell,” a female-centric spin on the classic debauched rock star story.
Though writer/director Alex Ross Perry (“Golden Exits”) has cited riot grrrl band L7 and Guns ’n’ Roses frontman Axl Rose as inspiration, there are undeniable notes of Courtney Love in Moss’ bleached-blonde, hyperverbal singer Becky Something. Her once-huge punk band Something She now struggles to make ends meet via smaller club gigs. But that hasn’t diminished Becky’s larger-than-life ego or her hard-partying ways — despite being the mother of a young daughter (Daisy Pugh-Weiss).
You know there’s trouble brewing when a singer is being trailed backstage by two hired shamans, ranting in alliterative prose and making claims like “I’m not myself if I don’t get to visit my other reality.” Becky’s bandmates, Marielle Hell (model Agyness Deyn) and Ali van der Wolff (Gayle Rankin of “Glow”) and her ex-husband Danny (Dan Stevens) fall into long-established patterns of picking up the pieces as she smashes physical objects and people’s feelings, but it’s obvious the aging band is fracturing.
“Her Smell” falls into two sections, before Becky’s sobriety and after, but avoids the Puritanical step of metaphorically flaying its protagonist for her excesses. Even when she’s hiding away from the world in her rural mansion or reluctantly emerging to play a ’90s showcase, Becky’s rebel spirit survives; the film doesn’t exactly excuse her worst behavior, but it’s more compassionate than judgmental.
The two-hour and 15-minute running time does feel a little excessive, as Perry seems unwilling to edit down several long single takes of Moss. She does a fine job belting out songs and playing guitar, though I’d have liked to have seen more flashbacks to the furious performances that made Something She such a legend. And I’m not sure we needed to hear the entirety of Bryan Adams’ “Heaven” as Becky sits at a piano with her daughter.
“Her Smell” is also notable as a fiery rock pic with a nearly all-female starring cast. Aside from tertiary players such as Eric Stoltz as a music exec, and Stevens, we spend all of “Her Smell” with Something She, their young mentee band the Akergirls (a delightfully grungy Cara Delevingne, Ashley Benson and Dylan Gelula), Becky’s rival Zelda (Amber Heard) and Virginia Madsen as her mother. Deyn and Rankin capture the world-weariness of having had to be the grown-ups in the room in an industry that rewards infantile behavior from its stars. But mainly there is Moss, so convincing I came away wishing Becky was a real member of the riot grrrl pantheon.
She’d have eaten Bradley Cooper’s dopey “Star is Born” svengali for breakfast.
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