What does Becky Something smell like? Do her pores drip with sweat and sorrow, of day-old eyeliner and her own vomit? Is there blood dribbling from her nose into her teeth, has she spat out her own weight in saliva from the taunts she needlessly hawks like venom? Maybe there’s still booze soaked in her hair, maybe there’s coke still lining her nostrils; maybe her clothes haven’t seen a washing machine in weeks; maybe she’s standing in a puddle of piss. Has she showered recently? No, probably not.
After watching a film called Her Smell, you can probably imagine what her smell might’ve been like. It’s a title meant to elicit the same distressful pungency of the subject matter and the subject herself – a celebrated rocker of a decade long gone who can’t wake up in the morning without a little something to get by. The film chronicles the hard fall and personal comeback of a self-destructive lead singer named Becky Something, whose persona lends its name to the fictional three-woman band, Something She.
Her Smell is an odyssey of violence and vitriol, taking the comforting conventions of the music biopic and flipping them inside out to show the hideous entrails underneath. It’s a joyously revolting and horribly depressing tale of personal demons and the way they ripple outwards, of the cruelty inflicted on loved ones when self-indulgence is the only prerogative – of losing yourself not only to fame, but to the poison of external approval. The film’s upsettingly lengthy sequences will not sit well for an impatient, clean-eared audience, but it’s a daring and uncomfortable character study that makes the light at the end of the tunnel that much more satisfying after sitting through the everlasting darkness.
In the present day, Becky Something is a mess. She’s fuelled by a constant cycle of drugs and the loving chants of “Becky, Becky, Becky” from adoring yet dwindling crowds she shows up to over an hour late. Her patient bandmates, Marielle Hell (Agyness Deyn) and Ali van der Wolff (Gayle Rankin), grow less patient with her by the minute, being forced to endure Becky’s unhinged, drug-fuelled rants, while Marielle frequently uses cocaine to take the edge off them. Becky’s ex, Danny (Dan Stevens), formerly known by many as the persona “Dirtbag Danny,” takes primary care of the young daughter they have together and presses her for divorce and child custody papers in spite of Becky’s constant belligerence. Something She once graced the cover of Spin Magazine, but now, well into their thirties, the trio’s lustre has mostly been lost due to Becky’s own chaotic instability.
The band’s manager, Howard Goodman (Eric Stoltz), has sat by the girls through Becky’s torment, but finds it more difficult as of late with Becky’s increasingly erratic behaviour and penchant for cancelling shows at the last minute. Something She’s impending European tour was abandoned, and the music they were recording was demoted from an album to an EP. The girls were invited to tour alongside “sell-out” pop star Zelda E. Zekiel (Amber Heard), but Becky wouldn’t have it.
So, Becky continues to take up space in the recording studio, despite Howard having already reserved time for fresh-faced girl-group the Akergirls, played by Ashley Benson, Cara Delevingne, and Dylan Gelula. Though Becky clearly sees the girls as a threat – a reminder of the former comradery and hopefulness that once filled the bond between Something She – she invites herself to play with them during their upcoming show. The girls, who idolise Becky like a gutter goddess, can’t say no to her. But Becky’s bizarre behaviour in the studio does nothing if not give them all pause, and their concern is warranted by her tardy appearance at the Akergirls’ show, complemented by a particularly nasty nervous breakdown to shadow all the rest.
The film is comprised of five acts – five draining and emotionally demanding scenes that explore a tumultuous, years-long downfall already well underway before the film begins, and the eventual upward climb faced by Becky and the people inflicted by her malice and carelessness. Each scene/act is preceded by a grainy, hand-held home video of just a few seconds, depicting Something She in their happier days.
Together, the film paints an intimate picture of Becky Something as equal parts tormented and tormentor; a now-husk of a selfish human being, overwhelmed by the years of admiration, love, obsession, and enabling that come with being shoved into stardom. She totes around shamans to guide her spiritually, but which only end up further fuelling her excruciatingly temperamental highs. Her mania is gruelling and her brutality almost relentless, like in the third act when she is so vile to her own mother (played by Virginia Madsen) you want to reach out and yank her greasy hair. And as scenes stretch out to their uncomfortable breaking points it’s as if they may never end.
It’s an exhausting way to structure a film, but it’s a film that’s meant to exhaust you. During a time when the conventional music biopic is feeling especially strung-out, Her Smell does not simply reinvigorate the formula – it pops a cyanide pill in its mouth and resurrects it as an entirely new and autonomous being. Each step in Becky’s turbulent path towards self-improvement and sobriety provides a limitless window into her complicated life; more detail about who she is than it feels like we’d get if her story was depicted as the standard rise-and-fall biopics of the past. There are things left out, sure – months and years we miss while embroiled in these five singular acts, and we never once see Becky physically use drugs. But these purposeful omissions prove just how revealing a biopic can still be when it’s more about the characters and less about the journey.
The camera is certainly not kind to Becky Something, but it is anything if not honest. Alex Ross Perry’s direction never idolises Becky, nor does it necessarily denounce her. It follows her in her most natural state and allows the physicality of her mania and calm, and the reactions of the people in her life, to guide her own cinematic likeness – Elisabeth Moss’s absolute disgustingly shining portrayal of Becky like a dirt-bag dream girl. The dialogue is naturalistic and challenging, sometimes whispered and a strain to hear underneath the booming of background concert clamour, often overlapping and interruptive; as chaotic as real encounters with a person like Becky Something might be. But once Becky reaches her utmost state of tranquil in the film, the camera opens up and the light pours in, as Becky frees herself from the shackles of her addictions and allows herself to begin the process of opening up to those she’s wronged.
The film is also a triumph just from the nature of its lead protagonist. To see a woman so fucked up and thoughtless, so cruel, unkind, utterly self-indulgent and uncaring that’s almost delightful to watch her grab her young child in a drug-induced stupor and fall to the ground while holding her. This kind of horrid behaviour is typically something afforded to “empathetic” male leads, while the women in their lives look on in shame, their only personality manifested in the form of earnest scowls while clutching their child as the doting mother always should. Her Smell flips the switch as Danny, the ex, is portrayed as the responsible father with main custody of their daughter. Though Danny’s personality only goes as far as his connection to Becky, it’s just nice to see it in a male character for once. Let women be fucking awful. Men sure are all the time!
In the film’s fourth act, Becky tells Marielle that Becky Something was “a way to hide from Rebecca Adamcyk.” So, where’s Rebecca? “Nobody has seen her since I was sixteen.” It’s true, that we don’t meet the real Becky Something until over halfway through the film, and by that point we’re meeting a woman named Rebecca Adamcyk. Becky believes that her former self was lost to the ‘90s – back when Something She had only their tight-knit friendship, love of music, and bright future ahead of them. Becky Something was the name that people chanted adoringly in sold-out crowds, and Rebecca Adamcyk was normal, a nobody; someone better left forgotten.
But Rebecca Adamcyk was never abandoned. She was kept alive in the people who knew her before she became immortal, in her family who still love her despite her maliciousness, in her friends who still love her because they know the person who still exists underneath the reckless Becky Something. The glory of Her Smell is that the rise is in the past, and that there’s nowhere left to go but the fall. For Rebecca Adamcyk to fight her way back to the surface, Becky Something needs to land face-first on the pavement.
By Brianna Zigler
Brianna Zigler is a graduate in Film-Video and Writing from Penn State University with big plans and not a lot of planning. She is passionate about film and writing about film and also talking about film but can’t really decide which she wants to do with her life, but it’s not a big deal (that’s future Brianna’s problem). She loves horror, absurdism, Twin Peaks, is a die-hard Wes Anderson fan, and currently has almost 250 movies in her watchlist. Her favorite films are What We Do in the Shadows, A Serious Man, Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Swiss Army Man, and Suspiria. She met Greg Sestero once and it was weird. You can follow her on Twitter @briannazigs