A Look at Moss and the Music in Alex Ross Perry’s ‘Her Smell’

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Elisabeth Moss as Becky Something/Rebecca in “Her Smell”, 2018

Alex Ross Perry has a knack for creating captivating, unlikable characters that disgust, repulse, and keep us curious all within a single moment. Each project becomes a series of sequences that follow a misfit as they stumble through the world, holding nothing but their estranged personalities and a giant ‘why’ over their foreheads as they stare, strangely, at everyone else existing. As we attentively watch each film, we witness the sad justification for the terrible, or terribly awkward, things they do — discovering just how far-removed their watches are from everyone else’s crisply synced clocks.

His latest subject, Becky Something, is the leader of a punk rock band called Something She (a band on the verge of a breakdown) who struggles with self-obsession and destruction, addiction, her career, and motherhood. Through the investigation of Becky’s character — that deterioration, rise, fall, and climb — we’re offered an opportunity to experience that chaos and cleanse alongside her. This ‘band drama’ begins after all of their goals, collectively, have been met — success has been won. Meanwhile, Becky finds herself consumed by supplementary addictions that drown out her insecurities, which still exist despite the fans, success, and money. After completely breaking down, she reaches a quiet period of tranquility, stability, and self-reflection, only to be offered another opportunity to dip once again… addiction, in all its forms (substances, work, people), is a constant battle for leverage. It’s not a championship game you win and move on from.

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Something She bandmates in “Her Smell”, 2018

In Her Smell, we see a world made up of bones and glitter, dungeon hums, stuck-out tongues, and smashed glass, as the main character, Becky, straddles her dysfunctional rocking horse — taking a wild ride to nowhere. Becky, a woman with childlike intuition and a shifty disposition that forms and reforms quicker than it takes most people to blink, is fully embodied by Moss, whose transformation into this erratic, compulsive, self-destructive character is absolutely intoxicating. Equal in her level of believability and shock, Moss’s performance is almost humorous in its level of commitment. Becky’s fluid, forceful disposition (influenced by her excessive substance abuse) leaves you watchful and in constant observation. You honestly don’t know what will happen next, and neither do most of the characters in the film as the stand cautiously present and attentive to the impending disaster(s) ahead. A person could stand completely still, present/neutral, and Becky would have at least 15 different, simultaneous ways of reacting to that person’s stance. Acting on impulse, often without seeing the chain reaction tethered to her actions, Moss guides you through the chaotic mind of Becky’s character and delivers it with full commitment, believability, and also, without hesitation.

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Elisabeth Moss as Becky Something/Rebecca in “Her Smell”, 2018

As is the way of most music movies, this film can be best described through its soundscape, which in Her Smell, guides us through the various levels and dispositions of Becky’s mindset in each of the crisply separated five acts.

For the first three acts, the soundscape almost sounds like a slow-motion fall, that moment when you black-out but haven’t quite hit the floor. Lacking definition and bearing only a few distinctive, identifiable sounds, such as the clang of a single, weighty church bell (mirroring the often strange, religious undertones of the film), and muted crowds (loud, indistinct chatter, forceful footsteps on a steely rooftop), the feel and ambience of the soundscape mirrors that of drowning in dank, dark chamber or dungeon. It almost sounds like you’re under water, listening to a wash of clangs, commotion, and chaos. It consumes your senses.

The constant, pulsating, consuming sound compliments Becky’s need for noise, as well as the selected music genre for her character — punk rock, which is notoriously seen as continuous, abrasive sound. The dynamics and ruckus continue to build until Becky becomes increasing consumed by her addiction and unable to navigate the problems that surround her. At the tail end of the third act, an incident knocks Becky out and into healing, which introduces silence for the first time in the film.

Most artists thrive in silence, whereas Becky flourishes in the all-consuming noise — silencing her mind and inhibitions. There are several animalistic references in the film; she is often referred to as a lioness, who sometimes harasses ‘cubs’, is on the ‘hunt’, ready to attack… She is a character who needs an obstacle to shatter. Becky is extremely strong willed, someone “you haven’t met until you’ve fucked with her”, so, in a way it makes sense that she would need this sensory cloud to give her a challenge to plow through, something to focus on when she’s performing… so she doesn’t have to think about herself as a person. This film is so completely centered on identity, who we are when we’re raw — do we even know?

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Elisabeth Moss as Becky Something/Rebecca with Daisy Pugh-Weiss as her daughter, Tama, in “Her Smell”, 2018

The fourth act is a beautiful, tranquil place full of ethereal, open, light spaces, captured in mainly static wide/medium-wide shots — a large contrast to the already established visual identity of the film, which was mainly composed of smooth, shaky tracking shots. Here, at home and in the quiet, Becky doesn’t have to perform or get gratification from anyone but herself and, through time, realizes that she can exist in the silence and finally be okay with that.

In the quiet comes awakening, and Becky’s realization during this time of clarity is that she needs to take care of herself, be good to herself, and keep going in order to take care of her daughter. In the first act of the film, Becky’s personal shaman (a dark, haunting figure among the catacombs of the backstage environment) revealed that her child would be her downfall, but in actuality, her daughter would bring the downfall of her work in the music industry, but, revitalize her life. By stepping away from the industry she managed to reclaim herself, and the ability to focus on her identity (a skill previously unknown to her amongst the chaos and noise), her actual identity, not the egotistical, self-consumed version of herself under the influence, but what really lies beneath Becky Something, Rebecca, the girl who was lost at age 16 after the rise of Becky Something (a beautiful detail in the screenplay). Becky can be seen as a truly egocentric character but, in actuality, I don’t think she is. She’s overcompensating for her need to be seen, something she felt like she didn’t have with her mother growing up. And now, she wants to rectify that past with being fully present with her daughter.

In the fifth and final act of the film, Becky returns to the stage with her fellow Something She bandmates for a one-time only reunion performance. With this return to her ‘past self’, we witness a return to the opening soundscape, and see Becky’s taste for temptation swell. With a brief dip into the shallow end, this pounding, liquid dungeon soundscape (representing, of course, her addiction to cocaine) satisfies and surrounds Becky, who almost can’t perform without it. She stands silent before the stage, consumed in the sound, before she moves under the stage lights in full effect of the noise’s return — does she delightfully welcome the returning influence of cocaine, her power poison, or see it now as a burdening cloud over her reality?

After the bands knock out number, the crowd goes wild and there is a request for a follow up performance. Becky hugs and holds her daughter, who beams in her mother’s arms, so proud of her mommy’s performance. Becky looks up, smiles, and declines, knowing that she can’t dip back into the rabbit hole because there would be no coming back out. Her little girl needs her. A sentimental note, often overplayed in cinema, but here it satisfies.

Elisabeth Moss with writer/director, Alex Ross Perry, on set for “Her Smell”, 2018

Her Smell is Perry and Elisabeth’s Moss’s third collaboration and certainly their strongest, with Perry’s Becky Something feeling more fleshed out, raw, transformative, and full-bodied than his previous protagonists. Most of his characters remain odd/set in their ways at the end of the film, if not slightly awakened, but here, there is a firm sense of change and transition with Becky, who lives and breathes with full dynamism and empathy, despite her obstacles. I could go on and on about this dame. Becky is a natural born creator, boldly being, naturally having an effect on others. She’s a walking disaster but people can’t help but love her anyways, and that’s a lot of characters in real life. We may not all be rock stars with a spotlight and camera documenting our every move, but we still have these core problems — pretending to be someone we’re not, or acting in response to who we think we are (maybe someone we created), and abusing people along the journey to gaining this sense, or affirmation, of self. Sometimes Becky acts rashly for relevance, attention. It’s like the class clown theory — if you keep getting a reaction, you’re going to keep doing it. Except with Becky, that final reaction was several lawsuits, hospital time, and the complete destruction of her career and family. A literal catastrophe.

This film is a genuine reminder that it is possible to rebuild, and that no one is completely past hope. “No one’s past hope” is often one of those lines people say to lift each other’s’ spirit up that, unfortunately, can feel empty or like the result of having nothing else to say; however, it is not without meaning. Oftentimes it takes hearing or seeing someone else’s story of hopelessness, how they healed/moved on from that state, etc, to feel a connection to the line “don’t lose hope!” Her Smell offers an example of transitioning out of a seemingly hopeless life scenario, and provides comfort in knowing that healing is possible, and after reaching a moment of pause/cleanse, you need to continue practicing mindfulness to keep the uplift. It’s a daily process and you are not alone in this. While film shouldn’t be the number one source for self-healing, connecting with others’ stories, or discussing solutions to real world problems, there are many, many, many narratives that operate on deep psychological truths and are so richly researched that they truly feel like genuine, theorized, pure explanations for the problems that exist all around us.

Elisabeth Moss as Becky Something/Rebecca in “Her Smell”, 2018

With Her Smell, I think anyone who has lost themselves in the past, or are currently missing from their own life, can find a deep connection with Becky’s story. With Moss’s charged performance, Ryan M. Pierce’s telling soundscape, and Perry’s construction and orchestration of both story and direction, you will be placed in an atmosphere that will guide you through the waters of chaos and darkness and come out feeling emancipated from the vision that ONCE you have fame and success, ONCE you have a family to love, or ONCE you find a place/ purpose in this world then you’ll be free of internal and external obstacles. Life doesn’t work that way. Life is a constant journey and progression of self, and no matter how many check marks from the to do list of life are slashed, those slashes find a way of erasing themselves, are repeatedly checked off, or remain blank forever. While this film may be abrasive and hard to watch at times, it leaves you feeling confirmed of its purpose.

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