New York Film Festival Review: HER SMELL (2018)

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Ever since I can possibly remember, I have been obsessed with music just about as much as I am with movies. I didn’t really start to form my own legitimate opinions about music until I was around 16 or 17, and I always daydreamed about how cool it must be to be in a band, especially after reading certain books like Please Kill Me by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain and Our Band Could Be Your Life by Michael Azzerad. Then there are the countless films about bands such as Sid and Nancy, Frank, This is Spinal Tap, Control, Ladies and Gentlemen: The Fabulous Stains, Almost Famous, Airheads, The Blues Brothers, etc, etc, forever. Now, we can add HER SMELL to the illustrious list.  

If you’ve ever spent a lot of time around musicians, in general, you know that there is a certain degree of arrested development afoot almost always. The rules of life are different for entertainers, especially if they’re famous. The world loves them, so they are excused for all their terrible behaviors again and again until finally, in the case of such musicians as Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, et al, they die. Or in the case of musicians like John Frusciante, Anton Newcombe, James Hetfield, Eric Clapton, and most relevantly to this film, Courtney Love, they disappear for a while and come back, sober and “better than ever”.

HER SMELL captures fictional band Something She right at the breaking point. Lead singer Becky Something (Elizabeth Moss) has become exceptionally out of control. She’s always drunk or on drugs (OR BOTH!!) and as far as she is concerned the entire world revolves around her. We see video flashbacks of the band’s glory days when all the girls got along, when they got their first (Spin) magazine cover, and their first platinum album. Unfortunately it all leads to a huge fight between Becky and She Something’s drummer Ali van der Wolff (Gayle Rankin; GLOW, The Greatest Showman), leading Ali to quit the band. Ali is the only member of the group who is halfway keeping it together. Bassist Marielle Hell (Agyness Deyn; Hail Caesar, The Titan) also has a hell of a drug problem herself and can’t tell which end is up.

Howard Goodman (the legendary Eric Stoltz), president of the label that represents Something She has been totally drained emotionally and financially by the band and more specifically Becky. He is trying to find any way he can for the band to become viable again, but Becky is so self-involved and obsessed with her weird spiritual practice with accompanying guru Nyeema (Eka Darville; Jessica Jones) that she has no time or patience for anyone or anything, especially not Howard, or for fellow musician Zelda E. Zekiel (Amber Heard) who wants to help Something She out with an opening spot on her tour.

Becky doesn’t even have time for her daughter, or her ex-husband Danny (Dan Stevens; Legion) who comes to the show to let Becky see their child and possibly get some divorce papers signed. Backstage at what is basically the final She Something show, Becky is completely off her gourd. Screaming at anyone and everyone, antagonizing everyone to death except her daughter, when she remembers she’s there. She doesn’t register a lot of stuff, including the fact that Howard is not going to be recording their new album because he’s found a new band to put his focus towards so he can get out of the debt that She Something has incurred.

To leave some of the plot untold so that you will actually see the film, I’ll say that once Becky finds out that Howard had plans to put his focus on a new band (comprised of Cara Delevigne, Dylan Gelula, and Ashley Benson), all hell breaks loose. Eventually things smooth out for everyone involved, to a degree, but it’s touch and go throughout the film.

I have a little bit of a personal bias towards the filmmaker, Alex Ross Perry. Not only do I enjoy all of his films that I’ve seen, but also we are both former employees of the legendary Mondo Kim’s Video on St. Mark’s Place. Alex and Andrew W.K. are probably the two most notable former Kim’s employees, but I am always proud of anyone from my old workplaces that go on to do great things. I’m only like third hand acquaintances with Perry so this is not a name drop; this is a legitimate laud to his success. HER SMELL really captures the precarious relationship between mental illness, drugs, and success. It also reminds us that even the most reprehensible, fucked-up, crazy people on Earth deserve a shot at redemption.

The performances in this film are incredible, with a family size shout out to Elizabeth Moss who shows us all the emotional range over the two hour run time. She is somehow evil, funny, vulnerable, annoying, and loveable simultaneously as Becky Something. Virginia Madsen’s short but effective performance as Becky’s mother is also remarkable. Eric Stoltz is perfect as the bemused babysitter of adult drug addicts and Dan Stevens is great as the beleaguered ex-husband and father.

I highly recommend this film to anyone who had a wild time in their youth, or who are still having a wild time now. Or even and especially for the people who have to put up with these wild things until they can’t take it anymore. You will see your life mirrored on the big screen. I have to assume that people who’ve never been rowdy rock and roll types will enjoy this film as well, but I don’t know anyone like that, so that’s simply an educated guess. Whichever category you fit into, check out HER SMELL, coming to theaters soon and showing to the public at the 56th Annual New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center. Noon on Sunday, September 30th.

Lorry Kikta