We do rock dirty with the stories we tell. For an artform rooted in transgression, the legends of rock and roll are conspicuously tethered to formulae. The Behind the Music-flavored rise-fall-redemption arc of rock docs and biopics has been bludgeoned into tedium, diluting the spark behind your favorite albums into a series of diagrammable plot points. You’ve seen them play the hits, now watch them Save the Cat. In a post-Dewey Cox world, enough boilerplate rock-and-roll flicks still gurgle to the surface to render even their press cycles predictable: an inexplicable star is tied to an act with an uncontested legacy, they toss out a middling performance over a script shot 40 minutes too long, the movie wins an infuriating handful of awards. Stories can fail us for myriad reasons, but they feel particularly sterile when the frayed ends of complex experiences are trimmed to adhere to convention. It’s a practice that becomes particularly fetid when applied to a genre built by marginalized, othered, and often gloriously abrasive voices.
The first line of Her Smell is a threat: “It’s not over yet…I’m not fuckin’ finished.” Becky Something (Elisabeth Moss), the eye of Alex Ross Perry’s 2018 hurricane of a punk movie, has returned to the stage with the drummer and bassist of her riot grrrl trio, Something She. Becky delivers the line less like a musician psyching herself up for an encore than the winner of a barfight who still sees red. She’s sweating enough piss and vinegar that you’d never doubt her conviction—if she says the show’s not over, it’s not over—but her band takes the stage with the passion of a fulfilled contract. As Becky leans into the raving crowd, bassist Marielle Hell (Agyness Deyn) and drummer Ali van der Wolff (Gayle Rankin) look resigned, lighting cigs and trading glances better suited for the trenches than a rock show. Still, the band crushes their encore. Becky starts the song in a whisper: “I always flirt with death / I look ill, but I don’t care ‘bout it.” It’s a lyric that could serve as Becky Something’s thesis. When the song is over, she tosses her guitar like a cigarette butt; the crowd roars, the band heads backstage, and everything falls apart.
Perry’s film is divided into five distinct acts: it’s the story of a dynamic character shoehorned into a fabled and rigid life path, without the agency to change course. Becky means it when she says the show isn’t fuckin’ finished, but it’s less clear whether that’s her choice. Backstage, we learn why the band may not have been as stoked on the show as their lead. Becky burns untamed through the green room: she slams liquor and snorts coke. She snatches her baby up before drunk-dashing out of frame. She curses and spits at her bandmates, her ex-husband, her manager, and Zelda (Amber Heard)—her maligned, KT-Tunstallian contemporary who’s traded the grime of grunge’s glory days for theater gigs and wide-brimmed hats.
It’s difficult to describe Moss’ performance as anything but a force of nature: Becky bursts through doors like gale winds; the people in her orbit brace for impact when she arrives and pick through the rubble when she leaves. Even the movie’s score, a panic-riddled dronescape by Keegan DeWitt, follows Becky like a black cloud, thudding with dread behind walls and opening to torrents when she enters a room. Her Smell’s brutal, 24-minute first act finally closes when Becky falls (with her baby in hand, for at least the second time), cutting her head and coating the floor in vomit. There’s something extracorporeal—it might be addiction, or craft, or fame; probably all of the above and more—that grinds Becky until there’s nothing left to give. It raises questions around how much of the legend of Becky Something belongs to Becky herself. That a study of such a kinetic character is mapped over a traditional, five-act story structure mirrors Becky’s dilemma: an unconsenting adherence to a conventional narrative arc haunts her punk approach to a rock-star career. Her label contracts have her primed for a rise-fall-redemption, but her humanity keeps her squarely in fall mode.
Speaking of that career: Her Smell doesn’t set out to call itself a period piece, but an all-woman grunge band generating enough money for Becky Something to travel with a personal shaman places the movie squarely in the ‘90s. Each of the five acts are punctuated by home video footage of Something She’s early days, all of which could comprise a more traditional rock story’s rise act. The first of those tapes offers a bit more context for the era: it features Something She, young and giddy and geeking out over landing the cover of Spin magazine. Their faces share real estate with headlines plugging acts like Kim Gordon and Veruca Salt. It’s a small flourish that recalls a time when musicians were actually paid what they were worth—and for Becky Something, those spoils are as much a curse as they are a blessing.
With the exception of the home videos, Her Smell takes place after Becky’s legacy outgrows her person. It renders her career—already burdened by addiction—unwieldy, and complicates any hope of a clean break. Her bandmates need Becky to tour. Her ex needs Becky to generate alimony. Everyone in Becky’s coterie, from her manager to her mother, knows that their financial well-being hangs on Becky’s ability to persist as a meal ticket. There’s no Something She without Becky Something, and getting clean poses a material threat to both the band and the money that follows the music. Becky’s trajectory, both in her career and within the arc of the movie, rises at the inverse of her well-being, and those that might have served as a support system are gagged by obligation to her income. Not that they’re enjoying a free ride: “The golden goose,” says drummer Ali, “sprays golden piss in our faces.”
Her Smell bucks the biopic treatment as early as act two, which finds Becky in a studio littered with empties, burning through half-baked song sketches and the patience of her bandmates and engineer. Her session is interrupted by new blood: Something She’s manager (Eric Stoltz) has booked the studio for the Akergirls (Cara Delevingne, Ashley Benson, and Dylan Gelula), a punk trio of fresh faces that wear the same earnest excitement of Something She’s early home videos. They freak when they realize who’s encroaching on their recording time, stumbling over their words and betraying their scene sensibilities in the presence of rock royalty, but Becky doesn’t waste time to make a mess of things. She’s so baked that she can barely play her guitar, she spits enough venom at her bandmates to provoke walkouts, and when she enlists the Akergirls to step in as replacement musicians, their excitement to work with their hero is shadowed by the heartbreak of watching the ghost of their career’s future fall to pieces.
The studio session both establishes and complicates the legend of Something She: they’ve reached the heights of gods of the underground (with the Akergirls made in their image), but it’s too early—both in their career and in the movie’s runtime—for them to be this washed up. Something She has a legacy, but they’re not a legacy act; Becky balks at Zelda’s offer to open for her on a run of theater shows out of pride, yes, but also because she’d just left the stage of a sold-out club. Something She should be at the height of their success, and it’s an unnerving subversion for things to fall apart so early in the movie. If any part of Her Smell enjoys the arc of a Campbellian hero’s journey, it’s not Becky herself but the addictions that have grown to constitute her persona. Those addictions make a splash in the first act by ripping through green rooms, afterparties, and touring plans; in act two, they continue to gain steam, pulling at the seams of Something She until the band is torn apart. By act three, a tour de force of raised stakes that doubles down on the threats of the film’s opening, Something She has been rendered an afterthought. Becky materializes two hours late to her own show, as fucked-up and acerbic as she’s ever been, with a camera crew to capture what she likely knows is her own destruction. Characters enter and exit a labyrinthian backstage to serve court papers and spit in old wounds, to spill booze and mount tension, while they take cover from Becky’s fallout.
Act three ends when Becky, lit and manic, is hauled in handcuffs through the crowd after cutting her drummer (and herself) with a broken bottle. It’s the rock bottom in a story of rock bottoms, made all the more disquieting absent the comfort of an early-movie rise to success. We can’t know how far we’ve fallen without first knowing where we’ve fallen from, and the removal of that safety net also rescinds the promise of redemption.
Her Smell is, ultimately, a character study, a medium that hedges its capacity to succeed on the strength of its lead, and it’s hard to imagine the movie helmed by anyone but Elisabeth Moss. She delivers an athletic performance so thoroughly embedded in the idea of Becky Something that it’s easy to forget the same face has become ubiquitous in beloved indies and prestige TV. Moss is a singular actor, but the role does recall another whirlwind of a woman in trouble. In A Woman Under the Influence, Gena Rowlands’ Mabel Longhetti matches every note of Becky Something’s charisma—and her dysphoria. Burdened with the soft diagnosis of a mental illness she may or may not actually have, Mabel drinks, spits, and pitches jokes that don’t land as her community becomes increasingly ill-equipped to provide her safety. Their stories might not function as direct complements—Becky grows hostile toward the world she inhabits, while Mabel endures that hostility herself—but both women live in films that bend from paths toward recovery.
The best that A Woman Under the Influence can offer in terms of redemption is a punchline. After weathering domestic abuse, ‘70s-flavored institutions and electroshock therapy, and bouts of compromised lucidity that find her violent toward herself and her family, Mabel’s life simmers just barely enough to enjoy some normalcy: putting her kids to bed with her husband. Nothing has worked to improve either her own condition or her world’s inclination to receive her, but she at least has her family. As they leave their children’s room and descend the stairs, it’s as if Mabel finally gets the joke: “You know, I’m really nuts,” she says to her husband. By giving Mabel the last word, A Woman Under the Influence doesn’t imply that everything’s going to be okay but instead highlights a crucial divide between recovery and survival: one’s ability to withstand mental illness does not equate that illness’ capacity to be cured.
Her Smell’s fourth act introduces a tonal shift as jarring as the overhead lights of a club’s last call. The segment finds Becky sober and silent, clean of the glitter and grime that coated her in rock clubs and studios, in a cabin surrounded by lush woods. She makes tea with purpose and ritual, monitoring the steeping bag with an egg timer, patient and studious. Sunlight floods her cabin, richly adorned with Something She memorabilia and recording equipment. There’s an ellipsis between Becky’s handcuffed bottoming out and her arrival at such an idyllic picture of sobriety that approximates waking up from a bad dream, but recovery is never so simple. Becky has been here before: the act starts with home video footage that finds her on the porch of the same cabin, smoking and rocking her baby, wondering aloud whether the life she’s taken is too much. “I’m so tired,” she says to the camera. Becky has known about this off-ramp for some time, and its failure to serve her in the past betrays its capacity to offer help now.
Becky has a year of sobriety under her belt, but everything she does within the cabin feels labored: her tea ritual is racked with tension, as if her well-being depended solely on a perfect steep, and she can’t help looking over her shoulder as if something is lurking in the shadows to pull the rug out from under her. Becky isn’t granted with any great truths or keys to sobriety, either. When Marielle and Becky’s husband show up to try and patch old wounds and give Becky some time with her daughter, she rambles about dreams of her “Native American” past and destiny, spouting the same appropriative mysticism that prompted her to hire a snake-oil shaman for her glory-day tours. She’s heading in the right direction—she speaks insightfully of her complicated relationship with the Becky Something persona, and plays Marielle a demo of the best song she’s written throughout the movie—but every inch toward the straight and narrow demands muscle that Becky isn’t sure she has. Like Mabel in A Woman Under the Influence, things have calmed down for Becky, but they haven’t gotten any easier.
That’s not to say the film is cynical toward recovery. The cabin scene is among Her Smell’s most arresting moments, the movie’s first chance to breathe after 78 minutes of bacchanalian spiraling. Free from substances and mania—at least for a moment—Becky serenades her daughter at a grand piano with a sublime cover of Bryan Adams’ “Heaven,” a reminder both of Becky’s raw talent and her humanity. She isn’t denied the opportunity to get better, but she’s not granted any illusions that it will be easy, or even possible. Eventually, Becky and Marielle exchange enough goodwill to try and get the band back together. The time at the cabin is Her Smell’s first substantive break from DeWitt’s nauseous score, drawing a stark distinction between Becky’s divergent paths of health and demise. The music creeps back, though, the second that Becky steps foot from her cabin, underscoring both the privileged foundations of Becky’s sobriety and the monumental task of maintaining it. Recovery is there if you really want it, but it ain’t easy.
The surface of Her Smell’s final act reads like a similar return to safety. The band is back together at a reunion show; their worst days behind them, they’ve finally settled into their legacy status. We’ve again returned to the backstage of a club, filled with Something She’s friends and family and lit with a fluorescence that mirrors Becky’s newfound sobriety. Vibes are high, but something’s off: the windstorm that Becky once brought to pre- and post-show parties has gone internal, and Becky is riddled with a nervous tension in rooms that she used to dominate. Even the show itself is suspect: the band is reuniting for their label’s 20-year reunion, a corporate gig nestled proudly in the antithesis of Something She’s id. You get the sense that Becky’s only here because catering to her legacy is her only remaining option, both in her career and the film’s runtime. It’s another instance of the human experience edited and compromised to fit expectations and ideals; you can stuff a life into the shape of five acts, but don’t be surprised when the mold starts to crack.
Becky disappears 10 minutes before the show is slated to start, a brutal reminder to her band and crew of the way things used to be. Tensions mount, just as they always have. The score that shadows Becky’s struggles creeps back in; a stage manager announces the passing minutes before show time. When we finally find Becky, she’s standing stark still at the end of a hallway with her back to the camera—looking almost creepy, like the kid from the end of The Blair Witch Project. Onlookers ask in whispers whether she’s been using again. Marielle and Ali go to speak with her, and in a Lost in Translation-tinged off-mic whisper, the band agrees to go out onstage. We never learn whether Becky started using again, but the answer isn’t important.
Rock biopics train us to interpret rehabilitation as a requisite to securing a legacy; a singer falls from grace, puts in their 28 days of atonement, and earns a late career of amphitheater tours and acoustic albums with Alison Krauss. It’s a frustrating approach to examining the shapes of such singular careers, and while they can be fun for a connecting flight from LaGuardia to O’Hare, it’s hard to imagine many of these movies inspiring solace in anyone who’s experienced addiction. What makes Her Smell so refreshing is its admission of recovery as a continued effort. By the movie’s end, it doesn’t matter whether Becky is sober or as fucked-up as she was in the opening act; her struggles will remain, her well-being will demand all that she has. The band, with the Akergirls and Zelda in tow, kill their slot in the reunion show, and the crowd is ready for an encore. This time, though, the show really is over: “No, that’s all I’ve got,” Becky says, holding her daughter and catching her breath. Rebecca Adamcyzk might actually end up okay, but Becky Something is done.
Perhaps unavoidably, the saga of Becky Something has been repeatedly compared to Courtney Love’s career with her own riot grrrl-adjacent ‘90s grunge act, Hole. Both Hole and Something She are seminal pillars of their genre, both fronted by enfants terribles with preternatural insight and grit. Alex Ross Perry and Elizabeth Moss have distanced themselves from the comparison in interviews, but whether Her Smell is actually about Hole feels as irrelevant as whether Becky got loaded to play her reunion show. Courtney Love’s legacy has undergone the Behind the Music treatment enough times to be diminished to parody. That she put out one of the best grunge albums of the decade has been rendered a footnote to her appearances in TV roasts and conspiracies around her late husband’s death. The rise-fall-redemption formula reduces complex, unwieldy experiences into disposable cautionary tales, and it’s an approach to storytelling that sands the edges of what makes rock so compelling. By juxtaposing the ballad of Becky Something against the pillars of five-act tradition, Her Smell both highlights the fallacy of so many rock-and-roll stories before it and does Hole and their contemporaries more justice than a biopic ever could. “I don’t wanna quit / I just wanna be in control of it,” Becky sings in the demo she plays Marielle in her cabin. We can inch toward control with ritual, structure, practice, and support, but some parts of life are untamable.