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Reel Review: ‘Her Smell’

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Elizabeth Moss plays a suffering punk rocker in Alex Ross Perry's euphoric "Her Smell." PHOTO COURTESY OF GUNPOWDER AND SKY

4.5/5 stars

By Anna Husted EBS FILM CRITIC

Alex Ross Perry’s latest feature “Her Smell” is saturated with authorship and rock ‘n’ roll. Not only is protagonist rocker Becky Something (Elizabeth Moss) struggling with her own blended identity as a drug user, talented songwriter and lead singer of a successful rock group, but Perry’s unique auteur hand is also shown throughout the film—particularly considering how “Her Smell” is shot in five long scenes, dragging the audience through the muck and mire of the artist’s heartbreak, success and hitting rock bottom.

We meet drug-addled Something backstage just after a live performance where her shaman (of course there’s a shaman) is helping her release the pain she appears to experience while on stage. We get to know her through flashbacks of the all-female band after they finished recording their first album, long before the three best friends found collective solace in cocaine and heroin. We find out in this first long opening sequence that Something has a baby girl she can’t live without, but also can’t stay sober long enough to raise. She is bitter at her baby’s father (Dan Stevens) supposedly because he has married someone else, but it’s actually because he has put his life back together leaving Something alone to endure the pain of her past.

In the following two parts, Becky Something continues to spiral out of control, failing to deliver the band’s next album and losing her manager while being sued by her bandmates and having to watch young up-and-coming groups take her spotlight. She finally hits rock bottom in a recording studio, very much alone. For a brief moment the screen goes black and we’re not certain if we will next see our protagonist in recovery or at her own funeral as she had previously bemoaned to her neglectful mother to have her “coffin arrive half an hour late and on the side written in gold letters: ‘sorry for the delay.’” Thankfully, Perry gives us the former ending: one of hope.

Something is at her countryside home drinking tea, but still beaten down even though she has been sober for months. She has lost the rights to her music, thus losing her own identity and sense of self.

Eventually, her ex and her daughter, now three or four and begging her mom to play a song, pay her a visit. It’s not only one of my favorite scenes from 2018 but also the touchingly quiet climax, when Something plays Bryan Adam’s “Heaven” on the piano. Her gentle touch and primal voice show her laid bare and not putting on a performance like that of the hard-rock persona she worked so hard to build. This is just a mother singing to her daughter, no rights to the music required.

In a new era of rock ‘n’ roll biographical feature films, “Her Smell” is refreshing. It’s fiction but a much-needed break from the stylized “Rocketman’s” and “Bohemian Rhapsody’s” that dominate the box office. Give this film a chance to show you its perfectly developed characters, great original music, and unique take on the age-old story of the rise and fall from fame. 

“Her Smell” is available to stream on Kanopy.com, a free service through Big Sky Community Library.

Anna Husted has a master’s in film studies from New York University. In Big Sky she can be found hiking a mountain or at the movies at Lone Peak Cinema. When not gazing at the silver screen or watching her new favorite TV show, she’s reading, fishing or roughhousing with her cat, Indiana Jones.

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