Walking SeaTac International Airport earlier this month, I heard the voices of rock-music legends on the intercom issuing cautions about airport safety. For example, Jerry Cantrell of Alice in Chains told us that no smoking is allowed in the airport. And then — I am not making this up — somebody from Guns N’Roses instructed us in how to navigate the airport escalators safely.

With quick-draw reflexes, I reached for my phone and reported this travesty on Twitter:

Hey, hey… my, my…
Rock-and-roll just up and died.

Perhaps my reaction was too harsh. It was certainly hasty. But it hurts when icons of bucking the system become, well… the system.

My love of that early-’90s Seattle sound lives on. Of course it does. It was the hometown soundtrack of my college experience. It was the rebel yell of those most formative years. Since the grunge wave, I’ve heard a hundred rock bands rip off Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” riff, and every time the imitation is both obvious and annoyingly inferior. But my aggravation with the copycats isn’t driven by nostalgia — it comes from a longing to hear new ideas and authentic voices. The heart of any great rock-and-roll beats with a legitimate longing, a distinctive vision, a righteous rage against hypocrisy, a demand for something more real than pop-music superficiality.

I feel like I found a pure dose of the real thing — a cinematic equivalent of Nirvana’s Nevermind —this week.

Her Smell, the new film by Alex Ross Perry, flips the Kurt Cobain coin to show the other side, revealing the woman behind the throne — or, rather, the woman who owned a throne of her own and demanded (yea, deserved) to reign alongside her Prince Alarming. But Courtney Love was a She, and so her public refused to attend to her intense volatility with the patience that they showed her similarly mercurial male contemporaries. She was an “emotional mess,” according to the press — but Cobain was a “tortured artist.” Okay.

Ah, but I’m misleading you. Her Smell isn’t about Courtney Love — not exactly. Perry conjures a character named Becky Something who, while obviously inspired by Love’s famous attitude and antics, is better for being a fiction. We are released from the burden of arguing about historical accuracy, set free to imagine a  mythical diva, a tempest in a t-shirt. Played with hell-bent fury by Elisabeth Moss, Becky looms like a representative spirit of so many women in rock, so many troubled icons, so many who somehow evade the many possible Deaths By Recklessness that seem imminent and even invited.

And, fortunately for us, the movie is also more than an invitation to witness a great actress indulge in self-destructive behavior. What could easily have just been another unpleasant exercise in what I like to call Stunt Acting — the kind of awards-bait performance that suggests Most Intense Acting equals the Best Acting — becomes instead something surprisingly substantial: a soulful examination of a whole community — the network necessary for the making of a Rock Goddess.

Her Smell, giving generous attention to a solar system of supporting characters all caught in Becky Something’s orbit — longtime bandmates Marielle (Agyness Deyn) and Ali (Gayle Rankin); potential next-generation collaborators (Cara Delevingne, Ashley Benson, and Dylan Gelula); a husband (Dan Stevens) trying to save both Becky and their daughter; Becky’s mother (the great Virginia Madsen) — is an outstanding ensemble piece. It takes a village to raise up a Star, but if the village isn’t careful, that Star might come crashing down like a meteor and leave a smoking crater in their place.

Her Smell asks if we dare empathize with a woman so self-immolating, disrespectful, egomaniacal, and dangerously intoxicated. Rebecca Adamczyk — that’s the name Becky Something is trying to put behind her — is an open wound that bleeds hard rock gold — but only on occasion, and, increasingly, only when it seems she’s alienated everyone that matters and pushed her agent (Eric Stoltz, excellent) to the edge of his patience. She craves the stardom, and when she gets it, she believes the hype — perhaps because there’s a smoking hole in her heart left there by…


While it’s clear that Becky Something, who provides an energetic catharsis for so many, exists at great cost to those around her, it’s also clear that her animating energy is a response to betrayals, abandonment, and abuse. The film’s most notable ghost is Becky’s father, who is rarely mentioned, but whose absence thunders like the bass through the ceiling and walls in these purgatorial nightclubs. She’s turned hurtful because she suffered formative hurt at the hands of someone she should have been able to rely on, and she won’t risk giving anyone that kind of dangerous influence — the power to hurt her — again.

But the movie never devolves into a blame game. There are moments mid-tantrum when we fleetingly glimpse Becky’s awareness of what she is doing and her helplessness to stop herself. It’s obvious that the band’s ship is sinking, thanks to Becky’s sabotage. And her behavior suggests that she’d rather throw her her shipmates overboard then allow them to run for the lifeboats — which is to say, she’d rather fire them than allow them to quit.

Nevertheless, all might not be lost.

After we weather Hurricane Becky through the storm of the film’s first 90 minutes, we might come to believe that even an imperfect community — one as prone to exploiting her as it is to helping her — might be enough to save her from herself. Much to my surprise, the film’s last act dares to entertain the idea of hope. It isn’t an implausible happily-ever-after hope; it’s a hope that scares everyone involved, given its fragility and unlikelihood.

If it weren’t for the uniformly remarkable cast (Deyn and Rankin are both extraordinary, and even Amber Heard is impressively convincing), and the masterful choreography of complicated scenes in claustrophobia-triggering clubs, corridors, and studios, I might not have made it through this movie.

But in the end, I’m glad I did. As I was watching, I had to ask if the horror I felt was an aversion to the film’s merciless ferocity, or if it might instead be a kind of discomfort with the challenges that the film was posing to me:

Could I find a way to love someone so recklessly dangerous, destructive, and self-destructive as this?

What does love require in such a scenario?

Would I be willing to stick with her, one way or another, during this downward spiral even if there were no hope of her recovery?

God have mercy on the Becky Somethings of the world.

May they outlast their own kamikaze impulses.

May they be granted the grace to survive the trials that wring such vivid music like blood from their guts.

May they live long enough to leave us recorded testimonies about how to ride our own escalators safely.


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