A Movie That Radically Rewrites the Myths of A Star Is Born
The wild and challenging Her Smell stars Elisabeth Moss as a self-destructive rocker in a familiar mold—and features an ending in a less familiar one.
This post contains major spoilers for Her Smell.
The prophecy is old: The rocker must die. At least the staggering-about, sensorially scrambled, substance-soaked rocker that fame so often visits must die—or so pop culture seems to want to believe. On some level, A Star Is Born must have been remade so many times because it confirms this. For years of Amy Winehouse’s career, people placed bets on when she would die. With each recent shocking overdose—Lil Peep, Mac Miller—came a public mourning process that spotlighted the ways in which they weren’t, fully, shocks. Musicians often leave behind songs seeming to have predicted their doom. Given how convinced society seems to be that artists’ addictions only spiral downward, it’d almost be weird if they hadn’t considered that same idea in their art.
Becky knows she must die. “I always flirt with death,” goes the first lyric that the fictional ’90s indie-rock front woman—a Courtney Love act-alike played by Elisabeth Moss—sings in Alex Ross Perry’s Her Smell. Via a shaman she has on retainer, she has a vision that her infant daughter will be her “downfall.” Later in the movie, after Becky has vomited in front of that daughter, tried to stab a bandmate, and bled before a crowd, she says that she always assumed she would die onstage. Her family members and bandmates appear to have assumed similarly. When she disappears right before a crucial gig, her ex and her mother sigh, shake their heads, and talk about how the end of Becky’s story might have finally arrived.
But Becky lives. She gets sober. She embraces motherhood and plays a reunion show with her friends and former nemeses. Perversely, this happy ending is what allows Her Smell to be a supremely challenging viewing experience. Perry has nearly inverted the Jackson Maine plotline in A Star Is Born into something that’s uglier but more hopeful, and maybe even more helpful. Becky’s worst moments are revolting, unromantic, and seemingly unforgivable. But she’s redeemed.
Most of the movie unfolds with nausea-inducing camerawork in the crusty bowels of venues and a hall-of-mirrors-like recording studio. Becky flutters around rooms, leaving behind corkscrew trails of confrontations in the form of compliments and petting or insults and violence. You can tell she has been a master manipulator, but no one around her appears susceptible to her charms by the time the film begins. They’re just trying to hang on. Becky’s band, Something She, has begun to lose its ability to draw a crowd because Becky has canceled so many concerts. One bandmate, Ali (Gayle Rankin), reports that the singer fired her twice on this tour and woke up with no memory of doing so.
The movie’s two hours are essentially made up of five jumbo scenes: three of Becky in a frenzy, two of her in recovery. The long-take format relies a lot on Moss, and she delivers with a 52-card-pickup blast of a performance. Becky gasps, screams, and bites, but the most chilling moments aren’t in her meltdowns. They’re in her faux-intimate, super-sarcastic whispers. They’re in the way she jerks from one persona to another, Linda Blair–like. Whatever forces are controlling her—meth or mania or both (drug use is mostly left off-camera)—can amp her into a near-Shakespearean register. “Silly me, I lost a drummer on the way to grandmother’s house,” she says seductively to a band of younger women who showed up to the studio that Becky had refused to vacate. “I thought we’d have to scrap paper and go home. And what should happen instead? Three witches come to my rescue!”
The other characters do not speak with such verve; rather, they’re mostly commiserating about Becky’s awfulness. Or else they’re trying and failing to shame her into acting right. This dynamic makes for one of the movie’s many aesthetic and moral asymmetries. Most of the characters are like people trying to nag a hurricane down to a tropical storm, and it’s as frustrating to watch as that sounds. But Perry deserves credit for caring about the folks in Becky’s orbit; her entropy is almost less the point than its damage. The lawsuits that pile up against her reflect genuine grievances, whether from the manager who’s nearly bankrupted by her antics or from the ex who’s been left to raise their daughter alone.
When rock bottom comes, it’s gnarly, and it’s performative: She’s filmed by a documentary crew, and her final fugue ends with her onstage. She’s being encouraged to act this way, or at least she’s using the audience to justify her behavior. Recovery comes far from the rock environs, in a calm and orderly country home, and Becky tells visitors that her monstrousness was intrinsic to her ability to perform. But what really pulls her into lucidity is the simple, humane epiphany that other people matter. Her daughter reenters the picture. At the comeback concert, she tells the crowd, “It took me a lifetime to realize that without people like these women up here beside me, nobody is nothing.”
Perry is correcting old ideas of rises and falls here. The archetype of the immolating rock god relies on ideas of sole greatness and sole torment: a person succumbing to “inner demons” as the world watches. That they might be saved by others—or, moreover, that they might be saved by caring for others—isn’t usually part of the story. Maine’s tragedy at the end of A Star Is Born, in fact, is presented as his sacrifice for someone else, a romantically destructive idea. In the real world, musicians who’ve faced addiction and mental-health problems—and there are likely more of them who live than who don’t—often talk about finding a way out through other people.
It’s hard for any culture to keep such survival stories in mind because those stories don’t have simple, dramatic endings. In Her Smell, the final show Becky plays with her bandmates as well as some guests—other women she abused and then reconciled with—is peppy and affirming. “That’s all I’ve got—it’s over,” she pants afterward, but whether she’s talking just about that concert or about her entire career is unclear. As a viewing experience, the last show is nowhere near as volcanic in intensity as the destruction scenes earlier in the movie, but that’s okay. A wallop of turmoil and a mellow recovery: If that’s a harder myth of stardom to sell, maybe that’s because it’s often not a myth at all.