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Review: Her Smell (2019)

Her Smell (2019)

Directed by: Alex Ross Perry

Premise: A self-destructive rock star (Elisabeth Moss) conflicts with her bandmates, manager, and family. The rocker’s career is imperiled by her increasingly erratic behavior.

What Works: Her Smell is a portrait of rock-and-roll insanity and its first half is a wild ride of outrageousness. The movie is Elisabeth Moss’s show. She plays Becky Something, the front-woman of an all-female rock band, and she is a nightmare of rock-and-roll excess. The character and the movie are alternately awful, funny, and tragic and the first half of Her Smell has a tremendous and unhinged energy. Moss is eminently watchable; her performance is fearless and devoid of self-consciousness. The role requires that kind of abandon because Becky is a mess. The film is a savage portrait of celebrity excess but there is a bit more to it than that. No one around Becky will stand up to her because staying in Becky’s good graces keeps them close to the center ring of show business. The people in Becky’s life, including members of her own family, absorb the rocker’s insults and ignore her indignities at least in part because of what they stand to gain but also because they seem resigned to her problems. Among the supporting characters there is an authentic helplessness that is recognizable to anyone who has dealt with addiction and self-destructive behavior; these people know that Becky is going to destroy herself and they are unable to help her. One of the most fascinating parts of Her Smell occurs in the middle portion of the movie as Becky meets an up-and-coming all-female rock band whose members idolize her. These green musicians are at first excited to work with Becky but it slowly dawns on them what a mess she is and that disillusionment and disappointment is conveyed effectively by the actors. Her Smell matches its story with a freewheeling cinematic style. A lot of the picture, especially its first half, is shot with handheld camera work that conveys the chaos of this rock-and-roll lifestyle.

What Doesn’t: Her Smell tells the show business cautionary tale a little differently than we’re used to seeing but it fundamentally sticks to that formula: our lead character indulges the excesses of fame, hits rock bottom, and then recovers. The movie succeeds as a character study and it is most watchable in the first half when Moss’ character is a human tornado. The second half, in which the rock star tries to keep it together, is much less interesting. There’s enough drama in the possibility of relapse but ultimately Her Smell doesn’t say much about fame or rock and roll that hasn’t been said in any other film with a similar theme. The movie begins with an authentically punk rock attitude but it ultimately retreats to something safe and familiar. 

DVD extras: Commentary track.

Bottom Line: Her Smell is worth watching for Elisabeth Moss’ performance alone but the movie is also an impressive portrait of rock-and-roll excess. The second half slows down and Her Smell ultimately becomes conventional but it is made in a way that puts a fresh spin on familiar themes.

Episode: #774 (November 3, 2019)