By Jason Anderson
Published in Cinema Scope 76 (Fall 2018)
The phony magazine cover glimpsed in the early moments of Her Smell may not have the same heady metatextual allure as that of so many journals invented out of whole cloth and newsprint for narrative purposes, like the must-read issues of Dorgon and Kill Weekly on the newsstands in Blade Runner (1982) or the original Spy magazine that employed Mike Connor in The Philadelphia Story (1940). But the sight of the three members of the film’s fictional band Something She getting giddy and goofy as they show off their first SPIN cover—complete with the none-more-1994 cover lines “Beck: This Loser’s Not Weeping” and “London’s Rave Scene: Welcome to the Jungle”—does serve a few purposes besides inducing a nostalgic pang in former subscribers. Along with the stage sequence of the band performing a cover of The Only Ones’ “Another Girl, Another Planet” that immediately follows, it’s a fleeting glimpse of more joyful times for a trio of women—singer-guitarist Becky Something (Elisabeth Moss), bassist Marielle (Agyness Deyn), and drummer Ali (Gayle Rankin)—who will spend much of the next two-plus hours in a downward spiral of anger, frustration, and self-destruction.
It’s also the first sign of the verisimilitude that distinguishes but doesn’t hamstring Alex Ross Perry’s vividly rendered voyage through the seamy upper echelons of ’90s alt-rock, a milieu that’s only just beginning to attract the scrutiny long devoted to the iconic heroes, flameouts, and obscurities of earlier decades. If even a New Wave-era novelty like Frank Sidebottom can inspire a Michael Fassbender movie and the sticky-backed signifiers of American hardcore can be plastered all over Ten Thousand Saints (2015) and Green Room (2015), then it’s high time for a Temple of the Dog biopic. Surely Eddie Vedder’s sterling set at the Bang Bang Bar in Twin Peaks: The Return (2017) would suggest as much.
In any case, the SPIN cover is a detail that feels note-perfect. Something She are right to treat it like a big deal, even if their response is cloaked in the era’s requisite ironic/sardonic humour. When the mag nailed the timing, it signalled a convergence of potential or newly achieved commercial viability, nascent mainstream celebrity, and the kind of subcultural cachet that can only be earned via umpteen zine interviews and all-ages afternoon shows. For this motley array of scraggly longhairs in board shorts and tattooed women in thrift-store baby-doll dresses to achieve that status was wholly inconceivable before the tectonic shift in American rock in 1991, a.k.a. The Year Punk Broke, to borrow the title of one of several documentaries that feel like touchstones for Perry’s endearingly scrappy simulacrum.
Becky Something’s SPIN moment also heralds the many opportunities that Perry gives his viewers to ponder the parallels between Moss’ ferocious lioness—who hurtles through the film’s first half fast enough to break the sound barrier, all with Perry’s reliably agile cinematographer Sean Price Williams keeping pace—and her thinly veiled inspiration. Courtney Love had a regular home on SPIN’s cover, having made it there four times in the ’90s. First was a homey shot for December 1992 with her husband, Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain, and their baby Frances Bean: headlined “Family Values,” the article was a rejoinder to the Vanity Fair article by Lynn Hirschberg that reported Love’s heroin use during her pregnancy. Next came the May 1994 solo shot to promote Live Through This, the second album by Love’s band Hole, which hit shelves within days of Cobain’s suicide. The cultural pre-eminence of the world’s most famous rock ’n’ roll widow precipitated a third appearance in February 199, and around the same time, Vanity Fair acknowledged Love’s seemingly imminent Hollywood stardom with a glamorous cover shot. Tellingly, Love’s SPIN covers were strictly solo affairs until she appeared alongside her Hole bandmates Eric Erlandson and Melissa Auf der Maur in 1998, though neither this implausible show of solidarity or the extensive promotional launch for the band’s high-gloss third album failed to disguise the rot.
By the time of Celebrity Skin’s release in 1998—which is roughly the end point for Her Smell’s timeline, even if the differences between Becky and Courtney are much starker than their similarities by then—Hole had also jettisoned drummer Patty Schemel, after the album’s gruelling recording sessions shattered her confidence and her sobriety. A close friend of Cobain’s—he’d originally wanted her to be the drummer for Nirvana before recommending her for Hole—Schemel was one of the scene’s few out lesbians, as well as a charter member of a cursed community of addicts whose problems blighted so many of the acts who benefited from Nirvana’s breakthrough (e.g., Alice in Chains, Stone Temple Pilots, and Smashing Pumpkins). Though Schemel would eventually stay clean after years of trying, Hole bassist Kristen Pfaff died of an overdose a few months after Cobain’s suicide. Love’s history of abuse would include a 2004 suicide attempt, a court-ordered rehab stint in 2005, and too many talk-show appearances that no one should’ve witnessed. Just as Becky can be read as a stand-in for Love, Marielle and Ali both seem rooted in Schemel: the vignettes interspersed between Her Smell’s five major real-time segments also look a whole lot like Schemel’s personally shot footage of the Live Through This era that was included in the documentary Hit So Hard (2011).
Perry stacks Her Smell with fictionalized surrogates for other players in the Love story, including Eric Stoltz as a scarf-wearing version of long-suffering Nirvana and Hole manager Danny Goldberg, and Amber Heard as a frenemy whose beef with Becky recalls Love’s acrimony with Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna. And as with the Hole frontwoman in her heyday, Becky is a woman of seemingly boundless belligerence, such that it’s easy to imagine her attracting just as many diss tracks as her inspiration did (c.f., Nine Inch Nails’ “Starfuckers, Inc.,” Tori Amos’ “Professional Widow,” Mudhoney’s “Into Yer Shtik,” Stone Temple Pilots’ “Too Cool Queenie”).
Even so, Perry’s film is hardly a Love biopic in all but name(s). That’s largely because Perry makes several very significant departures from the accounts in lo-how’s-she-fallen Love magazine profiles and docs like Nick Broomfield’s Kurt & Courtney (1998) and Brett Morgen’s Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck (2015). For one thing, there really isn’t a Kurt to be found here. If Becky rode anyone’s coattails, they didn’t belong to the man who’s her ex and baby-daddy in this version of events: “Dirtbag” Danny (Dan Stevens), a DJ whose neck tattoo fools no one and who spends most of the movie fruitlessly asking for more money and more motherly attention for their remarkably untraumatized offspring.
In that respect, Perry’s move to let Becky own the show dovetails with Gus Van Sant’s decision to keep his Kurt story Courtney-less in Last Days (2005), a more elliptical take on grunge’s central tragedy. Yet whereas Michael Pitt’s pseudo-Cobain musician is a figure defined by his isolation as he pads and mumbles his way through his house in the woods (a location evoked in Her Smell’s fourth and most restrained segment), Becky understands full well she’s nothing without an audience. No wonder one recurring image in Her Smell is a fleeting tableau of Becky’s bandmates, intimates, and enablers as they look at her with shared expressions of horror, helplessness, and exhaustion.
Moss works hard to earn those looks, too. While she has displayed her abilities time and again on the three TV series that have benefited enormously from her efforts—Mad Men, Top of the Lake, and The Handmaid’s Tale—never before has she enjoyed such a rich opportunity for sheer, unbridled showwomanship. Like Nigel Tufnel’s amplifier in This Is Spinal Tap (1984), Moss starts at ten and goes to 11 as the action shifts from the half-fun, half-fraught comedown from the triumphant gig in the opening segment, to the recording studio where Becky’s ambitions have run aground, and then to another series of dressing rooms and fluorescent-lit hallways where the pre-show chaos inevitably spills out onto the stage.
As Becky careens from one room, argument, or assault-with-broken-bottle to the next—often accompanied by her own documentary crew and a sham shaman in her employ—Perry savours the chance to adopt a more flamboyant style than he’s previously attempted. Closely mirroring Becky’s emotional volatility and oddly gleeful unpredictability, the first three real-time segments maintain a surprisingly seamless flow even as they are filled with sudden and unexpected crescendos. It’s as if Perry has sussed out a viable cinematic counterpart on the quiet-bit-loud-bit song structure that Nirvana famously copped from the Pixies and turned into alt-rock’s lingua franca. Though his past teamings with Moss on Listen Up Philip (2014) and Queen of Earth (2015) certainly had flashes of the same unruly energy, the velocity that they achieve and sustain here is frequently astonishing, and DP Williams seems equally determined to trump the breathless, relentless movement of his camerawork for Josh and Benny Safdie’s Heaven Knows What (2014) and Good Time (2016).
While Cameron Crowe’s Singles (1992), Ben Stiller’s Reality Bites (1994), or the Mudhoney cameo in Penelope Spheeris’ Tommy Boy (1996) may all qualify as more authentic examples of the cinema of the grunge era, Perry and Williams would rather present the mid-’90s in terms closer to the ’70s cinema that they know and love so well. Luckily, that ravishingly grainy look is perfectly suited to characters who occupy the same shadowy, just-offstage, not-quite-performance spaces favoured by Cassavetes in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976) and Opening Night (1977) and Altman in Buffalo Bill and the Indians or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (1976) and A Prairie Home Companion (2006). Perry knows that these mundane spaces’ proximity to lighted stages means that any adherence to naturalism can be cast aside when circumstances demand. Sure enough, the matters of Becky’s breakdown can become almost cartoonishly exaggerated, yet retain a visceral power. Fassbinder was a master of that trick, too, and what with the way Perry surrounds Becky with characters too damaged and desperate to break free of someone they fully recognize as a monster—or, as Marielle calls her singer, the golden goose who “sprays golden piss in our face”—Her Smell bears more than a few traces of Fassbinder’s withering take on the cruelties and co-dependencies that make great art and artists possible. In Her Smell’s most berserk moments—the choicest of which arrives when a handcuffed Becky evades venue security long enough to clamber onstage and deliver her own version of Johnny Rotten’s infamous sayonara for the Sex Pistols, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”—Perry somehow fuses Beware of a Holy Whore (1971) with The Rose (1979), the Bette Midler showcase that played as fast and loose with the myth of Janis Joplin as Her Smell does with that of Love’s.
Ironically, Love could have prematurely completed the circle between Her Smell and its closest music-movie forebear if plans had gone ahead for Piece of My Heart, a last-days-of-Joplin drama with her in the lead. Aborted in the ’90s, the project is not to be confused with the Joplin movies attempted over the years by Spheeris, Nancy Savoca, Fernando Mereilles, Lee Daniels, Catherine Hardwicke, Jean-Marc Vallée, and Sean Durkin (a roster of filmmakers who really ought to get together to do one of those insufferable city-centric omnibus movies or at least have a fancy dinner). In any case, a Love-as-Joplin movie would have been a very grim affair given the trajectories that both women were locked on; Perry, meanwhile, takes advantage of his artistic license in Her Smell and allows for some more hopeful notes. Likewise, Moss ultimately has the chance to dial it down and reveal unexpected layers to Becky, a woman who lives too fast because living any slower means feeling paralyzed by fear and need. When she stops being a monster, she’s faced with the terrifying decision of what else she should be.
Once Becky’s self-induced chaos subsides, there’s also an opportunity to recognize some of the things that Something She’s members previously provided to each other and may yet provide again. Despite their characters’ fundamental functions as emotional punching bags for Becky, Deyn and Rankin (whose Sheila the She-Wolf has evolved into the most poignant character on Netflix’s increasingly rich lady-wrestling dramedy Glow) hold their ground long and well enough to demonstrate that neither Her Smell nor Something She is a one-woman show. There’s a tenderness at the core of the band members’ relationships that somehow persists, to the amazement of all concerned. (“You were horrible,” Marielle tells her, “but it never made me not love you.”) That quality fosters a solidarity Becky recognizes and envies in the Akergirls, the grrrl-pop-punk band who become her eager protégées after she lays a rap on them that’s even more hyperbolic than the jive that Michael Shannon’s Kim Dowley lays on his underage charges in Floria Sigismondi’s The Runaways (2010).
Fittingly, the Runaways’ “Hollywood Dream” provides Perry’s film with a poignant end note. In Her Smell’s most emotionally affecting sequence, an achingly vulnerable Becky uses another song—Bryan Adams’ “Heaven”—as a means to reach out to her daughter. Evidence of the character’s own singing and songwriting prowess is otherwise disappointingly scant: the few originals by Something She (written by Alicia Bognanno of Belly, one of many young acts with a high regard for the heroes and heroines of SPIN) are plausibly good and ragged in a Breeders-album track kinda way and therefore less compelling than the more menacing passages of Keegan DeWitt’s score. DeWitt’s music complements a sound design that cunningly replicates the sensation of being in the concrete bowels of a concert venue as a terrible PA system rattles every wall: even when Becky briefly trades the backstage and studio environments for a more serene setting, the sequence’s climactic moment is accompanied by a surge of rumbling noise in the style of Earth, the pioneering doom-metal project led by Cobain’s best friend Dylan Carlson. None of this actually sounds very much like Hole, and it’s a bit unfortunate that Becky doesn’t have the same kind of signature song that Love had in “Miss World,” an exhilarating and excoriating anthem that invited everyone in earshot to “watch me break and watch me burn.” Nevertheless, Her Smell successfully compels its viewers to do just the same.