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.