Moviegoers have a challenge ahead of them whenever they finally get to watch Alex Ross Perry’s mock rock doc Her Smell: Try not to see Courtney Love in Elisabeth Moss’s performance as spiraling ’90s alternarocker Becky Something. In a recent interview with IndieWire, Moss pointedly did not mention Love as inspiration for the role—instead she said she looked to Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, and Marilyn Monroe. When asked directly about the comparisons to Love, which started percolating after the movie premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, she countered, “Why isn’t she Axl Rose?”
The answer: Because she’s clearly Courtney Love. Love (or the gesture of an impersonation of her, to be more specific) is in fact all I could see: She’s there in Moss’s blonde stringy hair and black-painted nails, the way her smile spreads across her face like she’s the spawn of Grinch, her music’s fatalism (“I always flirt with death/I look ill but I don’t care about it,” is the first thing we hear her sing). It’s there in the impossibly relentless energy that fuels her performance as she repeatedly hurtles herself up and down a rollercoaster of emotions, often over the course of just a few sentences. Spoilers ahead.
Whether she Loves or Loves not might seem like a semantic issue. You may be thinking that a (romantic) rose by any other name can smell just as much like Teen Spirit. It’s not uncommon, in fact, for actors to disavow obvious inspirations—Bette Midler in press denied that she was playing any version of Janis Joplin in 1979's The Rose, even though it was widely known that the project originated as a Joplin biopic called Pearl. James Franco said it wasn’t Riff Raff that his Spring Breakers character was based on, but Dangeruss. But the problem here is the unmistakable Love-ness of Moss’s performance, character, and appearance (not to mention the ’90s setting of the movie) gives Her Smell an impossibly high bar that it just cannot clear. It’s hard not to see Courtney Love when you look at Elisabeth Moss in this movie, regardless of the intent, and then it’s hard not to be disappointed when the movie fails to embody Love in all of her mind-twisting brilliance.
And that’s a shame because there’s a lot to be impressed by here and it goes beyond Moss’s admirable attempt at a tour de force. The film, rather economically, is told in five single-setting acts (many of them made up of extended takes set backstage at venues) that span about seven years of the career decline of Becky Something and her band She Something. It sculpts its central character often through the words and reactions of other characters, in a manner that’s conversant with Perry’s previous film, 2017's Golden Exits, about which he told Jezebel last year, “The whole point of the movie is that repeatedly, every other character is making up their mind about who [the central character Naomi] is.”
That’s not to say that Becky Something is a passive pile of flesh molded solely by others—she takes up space because she’s actively sucking it up like rock stars do. Those whom she shares the screen with—her bandmates (played by model-turned-actor Agyness Deyn and the only participating player who completely nails ’90s alterna realness, Gayle Rankin), a protégé band (featuring another model-turned-actor, Cara Delevingne), She Something’s manager (played by Eric Stoltz), and her ex (Dan Stevens)—can’t help but color in Becky’s character by chattering about her incessantly when they aren’t merely looking on with pity at whatever rant she’s spitting or tantrum she’s throwing. It’s Becky’s world and for the 134-minute runtime of Her Smell, you get a sense of how exhausting and toxic it is to inhabit it.
Becky Something most detrimentally lacks the genius of Love. Perry has his character stagger through freely associative dialogue that references everything from Little Red Riding Hood to G.G. Allin, but is rarely funny beyond vaguely amusing. The problem with writing a Courtney Love-esque character is that nobody has Courtney Love’s mind. The script has Moss regularly spouting off quasi-verse that intensifies the melodrama of the underlying sentiment. “I put Something She together from the ashes of failed junk bands wanting to have something in my own name like God spewing mankind,” she rants. “That’s ancient history and so are those ungrateful wenches who suckled at the teat of success that I placed upon their mouth.” The effect is not unlike Z-Man from Beyond the Valley of the Dolls going for an Oscar moment.
Maybe most detrimental, though, is the absence of real gusto during the musical numbers. Moss is no rock star, but she’s also given little to make plausible that Becky is; She Something’s thin sound is more punk than grunge (and more pop than what you’d associate with riot grrrl), so I suppose we’re to gather that they had a Green Day-style crossover at some point. But the few She Something tunes (written by and Alicia Bognanno of Bully and Anika Pyle) here don’t have the anthemic verve that you could see carrying an all-girl trio from small clubs to stadiums, as it’s at one point suggested they did (by Becky Something’s mother, played by the perpetually committed Virginia Madsen). In the fourth act, which finds Becky at home and (perhaps temporarily) rehabilitated, she plays a solo-piano version of Bryan Adams’s “Heaven” for her daughter. The movie affords her time to sing the whole thing, even the bridge. It’s set up for poignance, but there isn’t a trace Becky Something’s supposed hard living on Moss’s delicate and plain voice. Without any semblance of earned soul, the performance is mere karaoke.
As with most rock bands, the ambition of Her Smell is unmistakable and admirable, but that only goes so far. I was left with the feeling that most everyone here (but especially Perry and Moss) bit off a little more than they could chew. In terms of swagger, Her Smell is the inverse of The Rose—Middler made up well for the ham-handedness of her script with electrifying performances that made absolute clear, in ways beyond words, that we were watching an absolute rock star. And though Her Smell has clearly been devised to be more gritty than the soapy Rose, their crests (and weirdly, run times of 134 minutes) are identical—as the end nears, not without palpable tension, we are meant to wonder if our protagonist here is going to make it through her last performance alive or die onstage.
Her Smell’s ultimate resolution is not nearly as fantastical or ridiculous as that of The Rose (in which Midler’s character spoiler alert relapses by shooting up, stumbles to the stage, nails a flawless performance, and then collapses to her death), but it rings just as false. Her Smell is so obsessed with the decline of Becky Something that it glosses over what makes her tick (the film doesn’t even really specify her poison; we’re just left to assume it’s some cocktail of drugs and drink) or what even made her great in the first place. The reasons it does come up with for Becky Something to hold onto hope are so obvious as to be trite. Talk about a downfall.
Her Smell is part of the main slate at this year’s New York Film Festival.