What’s your favorite fictitious band? Don’t overthink it. Maybe you’re a Spinal Tap lifer (who isn’t?). Maybe you were a 90s kid for whom The Beets—yes, the “Killer Tofu” band from Doug—meant more than The Beatles. Or maybe you’ve spent the last 15 years humming Mitch & Mickey folk tunes from A Mighty Wind, in which case: respect.
With Alex Ross Perry’s gripping new rock drama, Her Smell, a fictitious 90s alt-rock trio called Something She enters the pantheon of legendary nonexistent movie-bands. That’s thanks in large part to a fearsome performance from Elisabeth Moss, who plays Becky Something, the band’s erratic and drug-addled frontwoman.
Becky, it seems, was once something of an indie-rock icon, selling out arenas and making highly influential records during the riot grrrl epoch. When we meet her, she’s years removed from her creative peak, consorting with a scammy shaman backstage at a grimey punk club. Throughout the film’s five-act structure (think Aaron Sorkin’s Steve Jobs script, but even more claustrophobic), Becky’s substance abuse and abrasive personality sabotage her attempt at a comeback. In her every utterance, Moss seems possessed with the deluded rage of a once-great artist who’s gone terrifyingly off the rails.
Then there’s the band’s onscreen iconography. Glimpses of SPIN covers and old CDs (complete with an Amoeba Music price tag) make the band seem as real as Bikini Kill or Pavement. “I ended up with all of that in the Wikipedia page of the band in my head,” said Perry in a recent phone interview with Noisey. A less-informed viewer might reasonably assume Her Smell is a biopic.
But every great fake band requires great real music, and Her Smell delivers. To capture the sound of Something She, Perry recruited Alicia Bognanno, singer of the Nashville band Bully, to write original songs. He had learned about Bognanno at the suggestion of Keegan DeWitt, his composer and frequent collaborator since 2013’s Listen Up Philip, who knew her from the Nashville music scene. In Bully, Bognanno’s astonishing voice and howling grunge hooks capture the angsty sonics of 1994 better than most actual albums from 1994. When the filmmaker heard Bully’s then-unreleased 2017 album, Losing, the music was startlingly close to what he envisioned Something She sounding like.
“I thought, ‘Oh, this is perfect,’” Perry said. “I heard in that record a guitar sound where instantly I was like, ‘That’s what I remember alternative rock radio sounding like.’ [...] We could look for six months, and we would find nobody who’s [better equipped] to explain to me what this sounds like than Alicia.”
The year was 2017, and by this point, the film’s script was written, but Perry needed an actual rocker to realize his vision. Bognanno was happy to step in. “I would demo something for a part in the script and send it over, and it just so happened that everything I sent ended up in the film,” Bognanno told Noisey in a phone interview. “It was almost too easy.”
Once the songs were written and confirmed, Bognanno would send videos of herself playing them for Moss to learn. During the studio scenes, Moss performed the songs herself; for the full-band performances (including the film’s hooky-as-hell closing number, “Breathe”), the actress’s vocals were overdubbed on Bognanno’s instrumental tracks. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Moss said she had to spend six months learning basic guitar and piano skills.
“It’s a lot to ask a performer,” Perry admitted. “It’s bizarrely cruel to put a guitar in an actor’s hands and put them onstage and say, ‘You’re gonna sing this song 12 times. Act like you do this every single night of your life, even though you’re doing it for the first time ever.’”
The first song Something She performs in the film is not an original but a cover: The Only Ones’ first-wave punk classic “Another Girl, Another Planet.” Perry first encountered the song years ago, via The Replacements. When he revisited it, he found the track’s opening lyric disturbingly applicable. “I came upon that song again and I thought, This movie starts with the words, ‘I always flirt with death,’” he remembers. “ That is a fact; I know this now.”
While Perry insists he does not know “the first thing” about music-making, Her Smell is the kind of movie that could only have been conceived by a rock obsessive. Growing up in Pennsylvania during the late 1990s and early 2000s, Perry reveled in the indie-rock and punk bands that had flourished five to ten years earlier. Like Something She, many of his favorites were fronted by powerful women: L7, Bratmobile, The Breeders.
“I came to The Breeders through Pixies,” Perry said. “I realized I’d been very uneducated about the breadth of their output, the complexity of their writing. Coming to them later, it was like, ‘Oh my God, I missed great stuff by not having all of these albums!’” Later, the filmmaker moved to New York for college and spent years working at the now-defunct film and music emporium Kim’s Video, its cramped ailes roamed by cinephiles and indie snobs alike.
Given Becky’s stringy blonde hair and penchant for self-destructive behavior—and, well, the long shadow of the era in which the character purportedly rises to alt-rock fame—critics have all but assumed she is a stand-in for Courtney Love. Virtually every review of Her Smell mentions the Hole frontwoman. “Love (or the gesture of an impersonation of her, to be more specific) is in fact all I could see,” wrote Jezebel’s Rich Juzwiak.
Perry says he didn’t intend this, but he gets it. “If you were playing Family Feud, and you asked 100 people on the street, ‘Name a woman in alternative rock in the 90s,’ you would get an overwhelming amount of people who’d just say ‘Courtney Love’ and couldn’t name anybody else,” he said. In reality, the filmmaker had a number of different 90s touchstones in mind. “I did say to Alicia, ‘Rip off The Breeders as much as you’ve ever wanted to but would never dare for your own music because you would be called a copycat,’” Perry recalled. He also cited the swooning hooks of Elastica.
Curiously, the poppiest song in the film belongs to another fictitious band: The Akergirls, a baby-faced gaggle of indie upstarts whose members (Cara Delevingne, Ashley Benson, Dylan Gelula) Becky practically kidnaps to inject some young blood into her sound. The group enters the picture during the film’s second act: a studio session that deteriorates into band-drama bedlam. The Akergirls idolize Something She, and Becky seizes upon their hero worship after her own drummer (Gayle Rankin) walks out in a rage. Greeted with the vision of the young musicians, who by chance have arrived in the studio before Something She’s session is over, the deranged singer nibbles their necks and christens them her “three witches.”
While Something She’s songs have a caustic, grungey edge, The Akergirls play sugary-sweet pop-punk. Their song “Can’t Wait”—which the Akergirls perform in full during the otherwise distressing studio sequence—was written by musician Anika Pyle, of the indie-punk bands Katie Ellen and (previously) Chumped.
“Alex [Ross Perry] just randomly Facebook-messaged me,” Pyle said of how she got the gig. She says she intended to write 60 songs and send them all to the filmmaker, but her first try turned out stellar. She wrote it while working at a diner. “I didn't have to write the other 59 songs,” she said.
Most Hollywood depictions of bandhood make it look sexy and fun. Her Smell does the opposite. Bognanno spent time on set during filming and said she was taken aback by how unnervingly accurate the faux-backstage was, with its grim concrete walls and copious booze. She and Pyle both seem grateful to have been involved in a film that exposes the unglamorous side of being a working musician.
“Your relationship with your mental health is constantly challenged,” Pyle said. “In this story, there's constant access to drugs and alcohol. And your careers are on the line in this volatile environment. It’s really hard. It’s not a vacation.”
Pyle admits it was strange to write songs knowing she had to give them away to a fictional character. “It’s no longer mine,” Pyle said. “Like sending your kid off to college.” Yet Bognanno had the weirdest challenge of all: being asked to write a song that kind of sucks. It’s called “Pulled Down,” and it’s a half-hearted ode to self-destruction , played by Becky in the studio when she’s too strung out to function; her creativity suffers accordingly.
“You have to still believe that Becky is a good songwriter,” said Perry. “But she’s no longer able to nurture her ideas.” Bognanno handled the request by leaning into barefaced mediocrity: “I probably… settled, maybe? I just did really predictable stuff with lyrics that were obvious, but not in an admirable way.”
The film’s original songs stand in contrast to its actual score, a throbbing, atonal nightmare that blends in with the incidental sound design to the point that the two are occasionally indistinguishable. It’s the kind of score that can spike your anxiety level before you notice it’s there. Perry said he instructed DeWitt, the composer, to make it sound like a panic attack. “That was really all I gave him,” Perry said.
When asked to name his favorite fictional band, Perry cites the Stains, the eponymous group from Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains, Lou Adler’s 1982 cult flick about a teen-girl punk-band-turned-feminist-sensation. “I consider the Stains and Something She to exist in the same universe,” he said. “What else is there?”
“Well, Spinal Tap are real, I think,” Perry responds. “In my mind, they’re as real as it gets.”
Maybe someday viewers will be saying the same about Something She.