Rock ’n’ roll drama, rated R, 134 minutes, Center for Contemporary Arts, 4 chiles
“Kurt smells like Teen Spirit,” Kathleen Hanna drunkenly scrawled on the wall of Kurt Cobain’s motel room one night in 1990. Hanna, the lead singer of the feminist punk band Bikini Kill, was referencing the deodorant worn by Tobi Vail, her band’s drummer and Cobain’s then-girlfriend. The implication? Vail had marked the Nirvana frontman with her scent.
In Her Smell, the putrefaction of ’90s grunge rocker Becky Something (Elisabeth Moss) rubs off on just about everyone. As the atomic-blonde lead singer of the all-female band Something She, she’s an echo of Hole’s Courtney Love at the height of her train-wreck allure, complete with blustery bravado, smeary eyeliner, ripped fishnets, and druggy dysfunction. But the portrait that writer-director Alex Ross Perry (Golden Exits) creates in this unsettling saga goes far beyond Becky’s pretty mess. Her Smell rips open — and then fascinatingly prods — the beating heart of rock ’n’ roll talent, excess, and insecurity.
Onstage, Becky is a punk princess, seducing crowds with her commanding, Love-like monotone. Backstage, we follow her as she snorts powder, swigs drinks, and provokes everyone in her path. Her career and relationships swirl down the drain, casualties of her toxicity. Her long-suffering baby daddy Danny (Dan Stevens) totes their toddler daughter to Becky’s dressing rooms, for better or for worse. Other members of her entourage include bandmates Marielle Hell (model Agyness Deyn) and Ali van der Wolff (Gayle Rankin), who are having their own problems with success. Nebbish manager Howard Goodman (Eric Stoltz), Becky’s well-meaning mom (Virginia Madsen), and the shamanic — or sham — healer Ya-ema (Eka Darville) round out the motley backstage crew.
The trappings of the grunge era are so painstakingly resurrected here that Her Smell could be mistaken for parody — for a while, at least. The band speaks in indie-rock clichés, gleefully but ironically proclaiming themselves “major label corporate whores.” Something She’s lyrics contain the same kind of gritty catharsis that Bikini Kill and Hole specialized in (“Nothing’s forever, this much I know,” Becky growls). The band’s aftershow revelry is punctuated by Wayne’s World quotes (“Party time, excellent!”), while Becky’s pre-show disappearing acts resemble those of wastrels of any era or niche, including country singer George “No Show” Jones.
But the witchy, raccoon-eyed energy Moss detonates in every scene elevates Her Smell to an engrossing study in just how genius destroys itself. It’s a covert feminist manifesto, too, peeling back the archetype of the media’s favorite female train wreck — so closely associated with Love — to reveal the pulsating vulnerability at her core.
Her Smell transcends the preoccupation with dysfunction that bloats too many rock movies. Its frontwoman displays a verbose wit and an impressive self-awareness even at her most addled, which keeps the audience firmly in her corner. Watching Becky pluck out Bryan Adams’ “Heaven” at the piano, transforming the schlocky power ballad into a captivating plea for comfort, it’s easy to root for the talent behind her turbulence.