When writer-director Alex Ross Perry (Christopher Robin, Golden Exits), best known for reliably thoughtful arthouse fare and characters that explore varying degrees of psychological unease, looked for inspiration to fuel his raucous new film Her Smell and his fiery, post-punk alterna-rock heroine, Becky Something (played by frequent collaborator, Elisabeth Moss), he turned to a surprising source.
Rather than mine the depths of everybody’s favourite walking study in demonology, Courtney Love, he instead went all spandex and headbands.
“Possibly the biggest single influence on the character of Becky was Axl Rose – and, on her professional trajectory, Guns N’ Roses.”
He was especially moved by the format of a Rolling Stone piece that charted GNR’s clashing personalities, and how they ultimately bled into colouring their own epic personal and professional paths.
As such, Her Smell is told as a chronological anthology, offering a comfortably predictable yet no less compelling rock and roll journey told through five vignettes that cover turning points in Becky’s tumultuous life. In the first sweeping scene, we meet a woman who has, personally and professionally, piqued.
Moss, quietly edging into Meryl Streep territory as the sizzling hot actress who has comfortably moved from Mad Men to oppressed women in Handmaid’s Tale, takes on the role of a washed up, former arena rocker. The film hangs on Moss’ unhinged bravura, which in itself honours the unique musical era, the vignettes progressively moving between her vicious snarl and arresting moments of contemplative substance.
She convincingly commits with a whirling-dervish zeal as the wildly strange, mysterious and enigmatic Becky Something, frontwoman of the all-female (former) arena rockers “Something She.” Hers is a splintered, multi-faceted persona that moves between the public’s perception of her and the private roles she vacillates between. Unfortunately for Becky, she can’t really get a handle on any of them – rock star, bandmate, mother, daughter, or whatever kernel of authentic self is left after years spent in the spotlight.
Beyond the usual culprits of drugs, alcohol and infighting adding to the wayward trajectory of rock stars, Becky has something else – her own personal shaman.
“Axl Rose supposedly came back from some time spent in the desert with a woman who functioned as his spiritual in-between,” says Perry, “You had to go through her. And the band obviously viewed this as something of an annoyance. I was very intrigued by that, not because it’s funny or it’s foolish, but because it speaks to a deep sense of actual belief on behalf of the person. If you don’t cast judgement on it, that this character has this ‘person’ next to them at all times, then the question is, ‘What does that say about Becky?’ She’s determined that this is necessary for her. Stuff like that has always been in the culture, you generally only hear about it when those people do something crazy and go to jail but I just liked the idea that Becky had to believe in something, she couldn’t be an empty vessel of personality traits and manias. She actually has to have some sense of what her guiding principles are, and setting them up via Yaema [the shaman] who she not only has around a couple of times but refers to a lot when he’s not around, shows that there is something that she cares about and believes in. She’s not just a crazy maniac who yells and screams.”
There’s a lot to unpack between the film’s many dialogues, which at times feel almost Shakespearean given the characters’ propensity towards density of language. Perry admits his writing was inspired by parallel mediums; music, a Broadway play, and yes, the Bard. It was important that Her Smell not feel like a filmed play, but instead come across as a “hyper, camera movie.” On set, Perry admits to finding a fun dichotomy in marrying the script with the actual shoot, which was approached very technically, to allow for unlimited spontaneity and chaos.
At times, it feels like an experimental art film. “The chaos had to be in front of the camera, not behind the camera.
“In the grand scheme of theatrical inspiration and plays that I was seeing that excited me, you have these moments when you’re sitting in the theatre where you have pauses and stumbles. You wonder, ‘Did they mess up?’ And if you’re me you go, “No, that’s how it’s written.” And I wanted it to feel like that. I spent a very long time tweaking Becky’s jargon and her gibberish. There’s nothing in the movie that’s not in the script. All the dialogue, the stream of consciousness, and the mispronunciations, every one of those is precisely written and even more precisely delivered, which is unusual.”
“Atmosphere” is an invisible, unheralded co-star, supporting Moss at every turn. The dizzying marriage between score and soundscape, which announces itself in the first vignette (along with Becky), carries the film’s establishing scene from her introduction through to her startling implosion.
“I promised everyone, myself included, that this one would be a very big, very loud movie.” Perry told composer Keegan Dewitt that the film had to feel, “like a panic attack. Be anxiety; a droning, throbbing, in your ear.” As crazy as those scenes are, they contrast with huge sections of the movie where there’s no score at all, resulting in a “quiet / loud conversation” between the sequences.
“I want this to be a movie where you can hear light, meaning that when the camera moves past a light, I want it to be bright and I want to hear the hum. The sounds of being inside these big, concrete spaces. There’s sound effects and droning noise in the score, and there are tonal qualities in the sound design. When the sound and the noise goes away, it feels shockingly absent.
“The camera, the sound and the score are basically forcing the audience to be subjected to being in these spaces. It’s not so much about Becky’s state of mind but, the camera and what it’s doing when it’s being chaotic or static are very much in conversation with what Becky is going through.”
Given the current political climate relative to a “new wave” of feminism, it’s hard not to wonder about the timing of a film that revisits the uniquely 90s moment in rock music, when female-fronted bands like L7, Bikini Kill, Babes in Toyland and yes, even Hole ruled college charts in a way that had never happened before or arguably, since.
“I’m not an expert on music culture, never having been in that scene or community. But the idea of the movie was in a vacuum, and I was really inspired by things that meant a lot to me when I was in high school. Somewhere during the production of the film, The New York Times wrote an article, ‘Rock is not dead it’s just turned female’ ,or some ridiculous title, about all-female bands at the moment in independent rock, accompanied by 50 artists in a Spotify playlist. Once the Times gets onto something it’s probably been going on for four or five years and everyone in the know is already sick of it! But, them shining a light on innumerable, completely independent underground artists proved that there really was a lot of it at the moment. I found that to be serendipitous.”
Becky’s tumultuous journey over the course of the five vignettes is compelling and exhausting, anticipating a spectrum of possible endings right up until the final shot of the film, when all is revealed and her story is concluded. As a writer, Perry needed to carefully consider it too, describing how he had to sit with multiple drafts before landing on the eventual, crucial conclusion in a way that honestly reflected what he wanted for Becky, her bandmates, and for the movie.
The final act is 20 minutes of backstage band drama followed by a soaring, satisfying crescendo that forces the audience towards the conclusive, abrupt climax – which includes having to question the lines between public perceptions versus a private reality.
In one of the film’s emotional “quiet conversations,” Ross waves the Canadian flag while Moss plays Bryan Adams’ “Heaven” at the piano. On the song choice, he says, “I really like the song. In the script it was very specifically this song, and there was no ‘Plan B’ if we didn’t get the rights. I really believe that it honours the song, which is great and I’m happy to reclaim it for this one little narrative moment.”