dir: Alex Ross Perry
Jesus fucking Christ.
I don’t usually blaspheme, but jeez-us fucking holy hell, this is a hard film to sit through.
At least the first parts of it. I mean, it never really gets that comfortable, but also, there’s this false dawn where you think the movie will chill out and be something you can watch without taking a Valium, but you’d be wrong.
I can’t say that I know that much about this director, Alex Perry Ross, but I can say that I know enough to know that his films are hard to watch. This film, or many parts of it, feel like being trapped on a bus that is way overcrowded with awful, overlapping atonal soundtracks and random people screaming abuse at you in between feeling you up. And it never seems to get to its destination, and there’s no button to press to make it stop.
Becky Something (Elisabeth Moss) and her band Something She are playing a song, a cover of Another Girl, Another Planet, and they do an okay job. I mean, it’s not their song, it’s from 1978 and The Only Ones, but they’re doing okay. I get the feeling their meant to be some kind of band like Babes in Toyland, Hole, 7 Year Bitch, maybe Bikini Kill-ish, who knows, but certainly of the early 1990s variety, and yet it’s never really borne out by the music.
The audience liked it well enough, and then the band come off stage. Things are pretty chaotic in the green room, as one might expect after a triumphant gig. Becky, for whatever reasons we are not yet privy to, seems to be speeding and drinking heavily, and her ex partner, the delightfully named Dirtbag Danny (Dan Stephens) is holding their baby, cutely dressed in a onesie.
What happens for about the next twenty minutes or so, is just the most awful, disconcerting, off-putting, anxiety-inducing tension that doesn’t really serve any purpose other than to show us that Becky is a fucking nightmare of an individual, and that everyone in her orbit is, even at this stage, already thoroughly fucking sick of her. And yet, for various reasons, they are all dependent upon her because of the (modest) success that Something She has achieved. Later on we see the members of the all-girl band (in a flashback) trashing some gold records in their manager’s office, so they must have sold something back when you had to sell hundreds of thousands of records to achieve that, as opposed to now where it’s classified as going gold if three people stream it on Spotify.
So there’s the band, Becky, bass player Marielle Hell (Agyness Deyn), drummer Ali van der Wolff (Gayle Rankin), Dirtbag Dan, his new partner whose name escapes me, one of the band member’s girlfriends, their manager Howard (Eric Stoltz), some other successful Tori Amos-like pop singer called Zelda (Amber Heard), a shaman (Eka Darville) and the shaman’s assistant doing some, I dunno, shamanistic crap, all in a tiny set of rooms, all being followed around by the camera person being filmed with a jerky handheld camera, all while Becky bounces around the place drinking, doing more drugs, yelling abuse at people, expressing psychotic and disordered thinking, taking part in rituals, saying insane shit about her baby, then telling the baby about how much she loves her, but that she’s going to destroy her.
And this goes on and on and on. We get a brief moment of respite when Becky, while holding the baby, has a fall and nearly knocks herself out, which is the moment when people decide to take the baby away.
I may be misremembering what happens and when, but I’m not misremembering how it all made me feel. In the next bit, set some time later I think because all their hair lengths and styles are different, they’re meant to be in the studio recording a new album, but I guess things aren’t going so great. They have outlasted their welcome, Becky keeps hurling abuse at everyone and screaming about how she’s the only talented genius one and that everyone else is a talentless parasite, and yet nothing she plays in the studio sounds even remotely close to a bad song, let alone an okay one.
Either A, we’re meant to assume that Becky is so far gone in her borderline personality disorder / bipolar whatever that whatever talent she possessed has flown out the window, or B, that the talent is still there, if only people would listen to her inanities a bit more.
When Howard’s new band come in to the studio, the Akergirls, Becky does everything to appear welcoming towards them but essentially sees them as a threat. When she hears them play a song, and it’s way better and more competent than anything Something She ever did, the look on Becky’s face is something else. It’s not for nothing that amongst all this tumultuous roiling, she bites the girls on the neck, joking about wanting to steal their youth and talent. Amidst all this, her own band members quit, or say they’ve had enough of her bullshit, and that just makes everything worse. The Akergirls themselves are young, and are initially in awe of being in the same room as Becky and Something She, but they rapidly figure out that their idol is a horrible person not to be emulated but at least to be humoured.
The third scene involves some time passing, and Something She no longer being a headlining act. They’re meant to be the support for the main attraction, being the Akergirls, who have become huge. It should come as no surprise that Becky sabotages what little she has and tries to destroy literally everything around her, because she has severe untreated mental health issues, and no-one can seem to help her except for her shaman, perhaps. All the people that were in the first scene, that abundance of talent, that smorgasbord of characters, is multiplied, so in the same space you also have the three Akergirls (Cara Delevingne, Ashley Benson and Dylan Gelula), and a film crew that’s following Becky’s antics, and Becky’s mum is there too. And a bunch of other people. And then more people.
People get stabbed, promises are broken, contracts are breached, loyal supporters are trod upon, and bullshit is piled up on bullshit until, sure, yes, the show that must go on doesn’t because Becky is Becky. Needless to say all of this is filmed chaotically in a manner that made me yearn for a time before I’d heard about and decided to watch this film, or for the comparative calm of the first bit, which was anything but calm.
After the inevitable happens, more time passes, and we find Becky wearing a sensible jumper, making a cup of tea and sitting in relative quiet in a house somewhere. She seems at peace, or relative peace, compared to the hours of chaotic destruction we just sat through. She is tentative, calm, for the first time that we have seen. Dirtbag Dan arrives, with child in tow (much older than in the beginning), and they chat amiably. Just when we think that Becky’s sobriety is better for all concerned, she relates to Dan a dream she had, full of nonsense, that is the justification for why she ever treated him poorly in the past. There’s other stuff as well, that proves even more disillusioning, because we gather that Becky’s mental health struggles go far beyond addiction.
When Becky asks Dirtbag Dan what her child thinks of her, Dan says, plainly, “nothing, she doesn’t know you” and it’s not meant to be hurtful, and it just means she’s been growing up far from mum, but it’s still pretty harsh. Elisabeth Moss does much better in this section representing the duelling sides of Becky’s personality, dealing with her clear longing for her child, but having that competing with her sometimes delusional thinking about supernatural forces and mystical threats that the child somehow represents. A generous reading of this element of the film is to see the natural fear that many parents face when they are confronted by the changes that can arise in their lives once they have kids, and, in a rock star’s case, wondering what it will do to your creativity and career.
After all, this isn’t a horror film, none of this stuff she says about prophecies and people (or kids) trying to kill her is meant to be taken seriously: if it is a horror film, it is so in the sense that life around Becky seems to be pretty horrific over a number of years, even more so for the other people. But, if we accept the film’s premise that Becky was, at some stage, a musical genius, you can see the potential parallel, or the more relatable element that her conflicted relationship with her daughter might represent.
In her interactions with her child, there’s love there, you have to feel, and the smell referred to in the title, the disconcerting title of this disconcerting movie, is perhaps the smell of her daughter’s hair, which has some profound effect upon her (a positive one, we hope(?)). She accepts that she’s virtually a stranger to her daughter, but tries to connect to her the one way she knows, through music.
If there were surprising elements to this movie, as opposed to all the unpleasant elements, what follows is right up there: for reasons I can’t fathom, Becky plays a one-shot take of herself playing and singing the Bryan Adams’ hit Heaven to her daughter, on the piano. The daughter, to her credit, sits there stoically without dying of embarrassment.
What to make of that scene: part of me thought, good on Elisabeth Moss for learning how to play the piano for that one scene which is meant to express her character’s longing for her daughter, her regrets for her past mistakes, her hopes for continued connection into the future, and the salvation that music represents. Another part of me thought: this fucking song? This isn’t some obscure sweet melancholic song about regret and unconditional love; it was the fucking theme song to the risible Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves starring Kevin Fucking Costner. She might as well have been playing My Heart Will Go On from Titanic.
And then I thought I was being a musical snob, too hung up on musical cred to give a break to a scene that was meant to transcend genre and represent a real connection between characters, and yet it still didn’t ring true to me.
Following that masterclass in poor song selection, there’s some kind of reconciliatory scene between Becky and Marielle, which, despite the good intentions, showcases how Becky’s still not ready to leave the house, and that the process of getting sober and (hopefully) working with her mental health issues has stripped her bare of the persona she created, so there’s nothing really left of the creation the public wanted. She’s just left as herself, and that self is unsure of its place in the world, or even if it wants to have a place in the world at all.
The last section. This took me by surprise. I thought it would end with her in rehab, drinking tea, expressing regrets, not really saying sorry to anyone. But no. Howard the sub-Sub Pop record mogul is having a celebratory gig for 20 years in the business, and the success of his successful bands (like the Akergirls), and the existence of the other ones (like Something She). So a happy seeming Becky, all glammed up, and a reformed Something She, are going to play a song at the showcase / tribute. And here’s where the tension, the overwhelming anxiety rises right back up, as we cannot tell, and all the other characters can’t tell, what the fuck is going to happen.
Watching this flick was an incredibly stressful experience, and, since it’s unlikely that this was an accident, I have to surmise that the makers, and Elisabeth Moss herself, since she’s one of the producers as well, made exactly the flick they intended to make.
As such, I should commend them, I guess. Plenty of people have a vision, and strive to achieve it, and fall short in a multitude of ways not of their own making. These people made a film about a character, and the characters around that character, about a music scene, or an era, that I used to care deeply about, and they did it in a way that said the things they wanted to say. To me the film misses the mark on a tonne of levels, but it would be unfair of me to superimpose my expectations or beliefs, or feelings, onto what their intentions were. I think every performance outside of Elisabeth Moss’s is okay, even down to being pretty good, sometimes even way better that what the flick deserves.
But Moss’s character is so toxic for so much of the flick, so all over the place, and the direction and cinematography and even the awful looped soundtracks are so deliberately distancing and agitating, that I feel like on a fundamental level this flick is almost impossible to watch and even harder to like.
I liked the end credits though. Seeing the mocked-up cassette and album covers of the various bands looked spot on for early 90s stuff coming out of Seattle – Olympia – Portland and surrounds. That brought a smile to my face.
And yet part of me wonders whether I’m bringing gendered or unfair expectations to this. We routinely see movies about the music industry with guys screaming about their own genius in lead roles and the world agreeing with them, and the people around them going along with their bullshit until some precipitating event, the fall, and then the slow march to redemption ensues, giving them and us catharsis. Tell me that’s not the through-line for everything from Ray to Walk the Line to Bohemian Rhapsody to Star is Born. And we forgive them everything, don’t we, when the harsh elements are downplayed and their genius and their behaviour are meant to excuse each other?
But we find it harder to extend that same understanding to women in the music industry, and their struggles with mental health or addiction. For every Keith Richards or Bon Scott, there are the Amy Winehouses and Sinead O’Connors, who the media is happy to mock for a while but they would really rather have them just go away, out of our sight.
Even acknowledging that awful double standard, I feel like with this film, made by a director that didn’t know the era or the bands at all, with an actress similarly unfamiliar with it, my problem is not what it’s about, but how it is about it. It’s the delivery, not the story that I have the most problems with.
5 times the fact that you can’t hear a lot of the dialogue, garbled as it is, doesn’t help much either out of 10
“I thought you were better than this, but deep down I knew you weren't.” – that could have been me talking about this film – Her Smell