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« Doc Corner: The First Female Film Director in 'Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché' | Main | Top 10: Nicole Kidman Vanity Fair Covers »
Wednesday
May082019

Soundtracking: Her Smell

by Chris Feil

It’s not incorrect to call Alex Ross Perry’s Her Smell a musical, it just feels like a simple categorization doesn’t contain all of the levels that the film operates on. It’s also King Lear on downstairs cocaine, a Cassavettes character study, and an epic saga of female friendship. And of course it’s also a subtle period piece, unfolding over the years when Spin magazine reigned supreme, bad behavior was a natural extension of star persona, and grunge and punk excesses converged into a million different stylistic offshoots.

But music remains the film’s connective tissue, whether it is pushed to the background by the impossible behavior of Elisabeth Moss’s demonic antihero Becky Something or returns because of her genius. What makes it all work is that the music feels authentic both to the period and the specific, fractious aesthetic Perry is going for.

Some era purists take issue with what they perceive as a shaky representation of the Riot grrrl movement. That specific subcategory of punk rock may be congruent in Her Smell’s timeline, but the fact it isn’t mentioned by name serves as a sign that Perry is chasing something two steps closer to the mainstream. In both sound and perspective, Becky Something is more Axl Rose and Courtney Love than Sleater-Kinney.

The film smartly knows that it’s showcasing a genre of music that gets reduced to one thing despite its many divergences. Also, there is an active tension with the more mainstream pop-rock sounds on the coming horizon of the mid-90s. Luckily, Becky and Something She aren’t the only ones pulling the musical weight of the film or filling the large umbrella of the genre that it is depicting. Amber Heard’s tambourine-playing Zelda reads like a Tori Amos type that’s recently dabbled in pop slickness or Spice Girls girl-power schlock. And then there’s The Akergirls, Something She’s de facto replacement act with Green Day inflections.

This punk world of shitty subterranean clubs and filthy recording studios feels lived in in a way that doesn’t call attention to itself. Similarly Becky’s songs lack a cinematic sheen. We’re in an era of rock star movies and even the best of their songs sound like A Song From A Movie, but Becky and her band Something She instead feel like we’re plopped back in time to the real thing. Even their catchy melodies avoid overly packaged sophistication or the cynicism of lending the film a cultural calling card. The thing we’ll remember the film by is the journey Perry and Ross take us on, not a song on the radio.

Instead we’re given a musical world that is deferential to Becky’s temperament but also one with an ecosystem hinted at outside the confines of the film. Something She has its own history, now spiraling after glory days filling stadiums; their fictional label Paragon Records is only as financially sustainable as Becky’s tirades are tameable, like many independent upstarts of the era. That fully realized world extends past the film in the music videos that would have been right at home on early 90s MTV (they even get the font right).

If there is any real musical standout in the movie musical sense, it comes in the film’s painfully quiet fourth act. A sober Becky gets a visit from her daughter, finding that the mainstream isn’t all that false when she plays her Brian Adams’ “Heaven” at the piano. It’s a necessary grace note before Becky really reveals her raw nerves of regret to her also visiting former bandmate Marielle, played by Agyness Deyn. At Marielle’s urging, Becky plays her “Control”, a reflective admission that despite the hurt she’s caused she isn’t fully ready to lose the protective shield of her persona.

It’s a moment that unlocks Becky’s journey as one of allowing herself to be vulnerable, especially with those closest to her. “Control” (perhaps intentionally) flies under the radar compared to its contemporaries in movies about rock stars, but we’d be lucky to have a Best Original Song contender as worth this year. Just don’t tell Becky I said so.

Her Smell is now playing in select theatres and will be available on iTunes and all digital platforms this Friday!

All Soundtracking installments can be found here!

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Reader Comments (1)

Little known fact: Elisabeth Moss started out in musicals -- she was Young Rose in Gypsy.

May 8, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterDeborah Lipp

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