Her Smell (2018)

It’s pretty amazing how Elisabeth Moss is the one who achieved the most success and recognition coming out of Mad Men, and here she is in another film that is a hit with the critics. Unfortunately I think only about half of the film is really good as the part that deals with the descent of a rock star is fantastic but the subsequent attempted redemption feels weak and unearned.

Becky Something is the lead singer and songwriter of all girl punk rock band Something She. But success and adulation has given her leave to do whatever she wants and get away with it. Fueled by drugs, alcohol and buoyed by esoteric rituals conducted by a personal shaman, she abuses her bandmates, her manager, her ex-husband and pretty much everyone else. She has a daughter but spends little time with her and thinks nothing of smoking and using drugs in her presence. Eventually a string of cancelled tours and failure to record new music as contractually required sends her career into the doldrums. When she crashes, she crashes spectacularly and when her manager tries to make up his losses with a new, younger girl group the Akergirls, she even attempts to take charge of them after her own bandmates quit in disgust.

At slightly over two hours, this film feels like it goes on for far too long. Yet that may be part of what makes it so effective. When it shows Becky bouncing from person to person, heaping abuse on everyone and become ever more unhinged, you want nothing more than make it all stop and you wonder why no one just snaps and slaps her silly. Yet no one does and we all know why. So long as she is successful and brings in the money, she holds immense power over everyone. As her drummer bitterly notes, they may have all started the band together, but they all know that it’s Becky the fans want and Becky doesn’t hesitate to lord that over everyone. The experience is positively tortuous as the scenes of her drag on and on and no one is able to put a stop to it. We’re all familiar with the trope of the musician whose life is ruined by drugs, but this is probably one of the best depictions of the process on film. Watching a group of young musicians who grew up idolizing her realize what a truly horrible person she is especially painful and it was adroit of scriptwriter and director Alex Ross Perry to put that in.

Unfortunately the second half is weak and the attempted redemption arc feels unearned. The rapprochement between Becky and her daughter leaves a sour taste in the mouth even given how she had thus far been such a negative influence. The director does try to upend things a little by creating some doubt over whether Becky is going to reform but it’s still not an interesting direction for the film to go. I think it would have been far more honest and powerful to show that while she bears most of the fault for her own downfall, the toxic environment around her shares some blame as well. Even when she is clearly not in the right mind, everyone is still expecting new music and crowd-pulling performances out of her. Are the people around her including her mother really her friends and allies when they permit her to do as she does so long as she remains functional and presumably can keep the money flowing? If they really cared about her as a person, it seems that they should have staged an intervention much earlier even at the risk of risking their relationship.

The first half at least remains a remarkable experience for how it unsettles the audience along with the people around Becky. The fact that this is based on a fictional character allows this film to be far more brutal than the usual biopics and the unusually long scenes really capture what it feels like to be in the orbit of a superstar like that. All of them realize how messed up she is and positively hate, yet they rely on her far too much to just walk away.

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