Alex Ross Perry is used to critics calling his characters unlikeable. Over the course of seven films released in the past ten years, the prolific 34-year-old writer-director has established himself as one of modern independent cinema’s preeminent chroniclers of massively self-involved and self-destructive people. (Somehow, this tendency landed him a job writing the 2018 box-office hit Christopher Robin for Disney.) While Perry has attracted an array of A-list talent to his micro-budgeted projects — including frequent collaborators like Jason Schwartzman and Elisabeth Moss — his work seems designed to repel viewers who are accustomed to conventionally amiable protagonists.
Perry’s latest film, the thrilling if also highly discomforting ’90s Riot Grrl drama Her Smell — which opens today in limited release — Moss stars as Becky Something, a talented punk-rock singer-songwriter and unabashed drug addict who, yes, is massively self-involved and self-destructive. Over the course of five long scenes that unfold over the course of 135 minutes, Perry charts Becky’s rise and fall … and unexpected late-period return with the naturalistic verve of prime ’70s auteurs like John Cassavetes and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. But what’s most striking (and potentially alienating) about Her Smell is how far Perry and Moss are willing to push Becky’s behavior. An abusive hot mess who perpetually spits insults and gobs of beer at her loved ones, Becky is a true throwback to a different era in rock and pop stardom, when celebrities weren’t only forgiven for abhorrent behavior, but valorized for their “realness.”
While Becky might appear at first glance to be a fictionalized version of Courtney Love, Perry was actually inspired by somewhat less heralded ’90s acts such as the Breeders and Elastica that flamed out after a flash of alt-rock success, as well as the recent reunions of two of his favorite bands, Guns N’ Roses and Jawbreaker. Like Axl Rose, Becky somehow gets one final shot at redemption, though the tension of Her Smell (as it was for GNR’s reunion tour) is whether she’ll ultimately blow it.
“[Chuck] Klosterman has this great line that I’ve heard him say a couple times, where he says, ‘Being a musician is the only field where being called a rock star is a bad thing,'” Perry says during a recent interview. “Playing off of his quote, I’ve made all these movies where people often say, ‘Oh, they’re difficult characters, unlikable characters, it’s very challenging to go on this journey with them because they’re so dishonest and they’re so mean.’ My question to myself is, if it’s a rock star and an addict, can I get away with all of the things that I generally feel like writing? Will this finally be the profession that the size of the ego and the size of the terror of the character I want to write just goes hand in hand with the character itself?”
I spoke with Perry about making movies about musicians in “a post-Walk Hard world,” the antiquated dysfunction of ’90s rock stars, and the power of Bryan Adams’ timeless power ballad “Heaven.”
One of the strengths of Her Smell is that you didn’t make a music biopic about an actual ’90s rock star. By making a movie about a fictionalized musician, you avoided a lot of the clichés that make movies like Bohemian Rhapsody and The Dirt so ridiculous. How influenced were you by watching movies about real-life musicians, in terms of what not to do?
I said this a lot while making the movie: We do live in a post-Walk Hard world. It should be illegal to, with a straight face, present things that are done in that movie, in a music movie. Part of what I liked about A Star Is Born is it kind of avoids all that stuff. But in terms of avoiding things, it just was innate — because this is not a movie about the perils and pitfalls of the music industry, and it’s not a cradle-to-grave story about a musician. The milieu of the movie and the culture of the movie is just the vessel for the story that I wanted to be telling. The story I want to tell doesn’t have any room for a scene where the character gets a big bolt of inspiration and then goes off and does the thing that everyone who’s watching the movie knows is the most iconic thing about this person. Because it’s fictional, there is no most iconic thing, so you can do anything you want.
This is a movie about addiction, and also about how relationships can be damaged and repaired over time. What was it about the milieu of ’90s indie rock that made it the right setting for that story?
I had been trying for years several years ago to make a music movie set in a different time period. It was like a ’60s pop movie. And for one reason or another, it didn’t happen. But then I realized that maybe it was for the best, because that’s not an era that I have any first-hand feelings towards. It’s all just rear-view appreciation of how much I came to like that music.
Then I had the idea for the Becky character as the next collaboration for Lizzy Moss and myself. I just had at that time, coincidentally, been going through a long phase of reconnecting with and rediscovering a lot of the music of my youth and realizing that I’d lost 15 years of listening to some of this stuff by thinking it wasn’t my favorite music in the world anymore. And it all kind of came together.
The Elizabeth Moss character fits the mold of the ’90s rocker, in that she’s an abrasive, difficult person who is not conventionally likable. You could say the same about Kurt Cobain, Axl Rose, Courtney Love, Billy Corgan — the list goes on. Being difficult at that time was seen as a mark of authenticity. While I was watching your movie, it occurred to me that difficult people aren’t really lauded anymore. I’m wondering if that shift in attitude from then to now informed the movie.
It does seem like there’s no room anywhere in the culture for people that live like that at all. And the people that live like that tend to sort of flame out or they’re just not … they’re deemed not worth it. Axl could do that because he was selling out stadiums. So his antics went hand-in-hand with unfathomable success. But really no one has unfathomable success anymore. Or those that do are such finely oiled machines that if they went off the rails it would destabilize an empire with employees.
I feel like the last band that I really liked that sort of seemed like this was The Libertines. The thing about them was that they were insane and debauched and they would get arrested at shows and they would start fights or they just wouldn’t show up and that was very cool. That was like 15 years ago.
You’ve mentioned Guns N’ Roses and Jawbreaker as inspirations for the band in the film. What’s interesting about both bands, who otherwise couldn’t be more different, is that they both imploded, and then came back many years later for reunions that were rapturously received. Reunions used to be viewed as these cynical cash-ins, but now people really enjoy seeing these bands they love repair their relationships and get back together. In a way, that more welcoming attitude seems healthier.
The importance of the Guns N’ Roses reunion tour to the development of this script cannot be overstated. You have to sort of contextualize the narrative arc of this band into everything you thought about them when you’re paying 300 dollars a ticket. Like, all I can think about is what was that conversation like for the first time? That really inspired the end of this movie. Twenty years of public insults, and then suddenly you’re in the rehearsal space jamming together. Narratively, I’m just fascinated by what that would have been like. We also talked about Elastica, and that narrative is also very fascinating.
About them just being huge for one record and that the next record is sort of nonexistent?
Yeah, it just dies and then the band just immediately is gone forever. [Though] that record has lost none of its power 25 years later.
How different would this movie have been if it were about an all-male band rather than an all-female band?
Well, there are two things on that point that were relevant. One is that — and I told Lizzie this — I just wrote Becky as though she is a man. You hear everyone from L7 to Joan Jett talk about this. Women who are like, I wanted to spread my legs and hang my guitar down low and put my leg up on the monitor and just rock out like a dude because that’s what I saw and that’s what I liked. I was writing all of her behavior in that kind of male rock star, total machismo attitude, but it’s a woman and therefore it becomes an entirely different thing. But it’s not like she makes any concessions for her gender, nor does she ask them of anybody else.
The other important thing is that by making it women, this feeling of success that we’re even allowed to acknowledge is possible for this band is much much lower than it is for a male punk or alternative band. Because if it’s three guys, you could be doing Green Day, and you could be having 10 million records sold. In terms of all-female bands, I am not sure any of them went platinum. The success is just not there the same way it was for men.
There’s a pivotal moment in the movie where everything stops and Elisabeth Moss performs “Heaven” by Bryan Adams by herself on the piano. It’s a really affecting performance. Why did you pick that song?
I heard it somewhere, in a bodega, on the radio, who knows where? And I just thought, oh that’s it. That’s exactly what I’m looking for. If this movie can go from the noise and the chaos of act three, to a four-and-a-half minute shot where she plays “Heaven” on a piano, and that makes sense and we’ve earned that, then the entire movie works for me. I didn’t own Richard Marx and Bryan Adams albums, but I’ve always liked that music. Not as much as I liked Guns N’ Roses or Iron Maiden but I kind of have a soft spot for ’80s power ballads because I think they’re very beautiful and very authentically emotional in a way.
Someone read the script, a music writer who wrote a book about one of these bands who is in the DNA of the movie. And she said this is a huge mistake, this is a terribly cheesy song, a woman like Becky at this time would hate ’80s pop music. She would be playing a Joni Mitchell or a Stevie Nicks song. And I was like, historically, I’m sure you’re right. But there’s no magic to pulling off an emotional reaction to a Joni Mitchell song in a movie. The magic is already baked into people’s relationship with her music. If I can pull off an emotional reaction to an ’80s power ballad, then I tripled down and hopefully it will pay off like a slot machine.
‘Her Smell’ opens in theaters this weekend.