When I first saw Elisabeth Moss run rampant in the trailer for Alex Ross Perry’s Her Smell, I thought, “Okay, so after taking on Philip Roth in Listen Up, Philip, he’s made a veiled biopic of Courtney Love?’
After all, Becky, the protagonist of the film previewed at South by Southwest this past weekend, is a rock star who was massively popular at one point in the ’90s but is now alienating everyone around her—including her rocker husband, her baby daughter, her long-suffering manager, and her more level-headed bandmates in Something She— as she rides a manic wave of sex, drugs and narcissism. Surely there’s a Billy Corgan character as well?
Turns out, many critics have made the Courtney comparison. But a biopic this is not. In an Indiewire interview, Moss “bristled” at the reference and asked, “Why isn’t she Axl Rose?” And according to Variety, Alex Ross Perry said all-female grunge band L7 was a primary inspiration and Courtney Love wasn’t.
It’s not surprising, then, that Courtney wasn’t mentioned during the Q&A that Her Smell’s SXSW screening at the Zach Theatre in Austin. But an audience member did use another C-word when he asked Perry if Cassavetes—and specifically A Woman Under the Influence— was an inspiration for the extreme closeups on Elisabeth Moss’s face as she verbally abuses and confuses everyone around her.
Perry admitted that the movies he’s made with director of photography Sean Price Williams “end up being compared to Cassavetes very often and when we were shooting this, Sean said, ‘We have to not get compared to Cassavetes anymore. We have never once brought him up on this movie, ever, for the first time.’ And then as soon as we screened it, people were like, ‘This is kind of like Opening Night
Not that the Brooklyn filmmaker minds; he said the comparison was a “huge compliment.”
Of course, in Opening Night the performer’s young fan is struck by a car while trying to have a moment with her, whereas here the Akergirls (whose name and punk garb may or may not be a nod to Kathy Acker) get to record with their heroine and quickly realize they should’ve been careful what they wished for. (In real life, Perry is a fan of meeting your idols. “Meeting heroes is fine, I recommend it,” he said on Saturday. “If you see one, just grab them and start talking to them.”)
It will not be lost on Alex Ross Perry followers that Listen Up, Philip also involved a character who took up with his creative hero. And yet another film Perry did with Elisabeth Moss,Queen of Earth, centered around a spiraling woman who was almost sadistically cruel to her friends.
Moss said that after filming Queen of Earth with Moss, they “kind of had this exciting thing where this character was really challenging and she wasn’t really likeable, and she was a little crazy. And we enjoyed that experience for a couple of weeks. And so we thought, ‘Let’s try going further in that direction, let’s try finding something even more to do there.’”
Perry says he got excited when he decided to frame his “rock star, addict, mother” character in the world of ’90s rock. “To do a kind of ’90s alternative, grunge, girl-punk movie… that doesn’t even remotely exist,” he recalled thinking. He jokingly named Airheads as a possible exception, but Gus Van Zandt’s Last Days is probably the better comparison.
Which brings us back to the question of whether Courtney Love was an inspiration. The rough-edged yet vaguely enchanting songs Moss strums in the studio would certainly fit nicely alongside “Doll Parts” on a demo tape, although one of them, “Garbage Dump,” is actually a Charlie Manson song. (Another fun fact: Keith Paulson, who plays the engineer in the film, also taught the actresses how to convincingly play their instruments on camera.)
Ross said he tapped Alicia Bognanno to write the Something She songs because her band Bully’s music “reminds me of music from this era and they were clearly inspired by that.” (Same for Anika Pyle, who wrote songs for the Akergirls.) Of course, Bognanno has also been compared to Courtney Love, but Perry didn’t mention Hole when he recalled the emails that were exchanged during pre-production: “We had this long chain that started with The Slits and The Raincoats and ended with The Breeders and Veruca Salt.”
Ok, fine, I’ll take everyone’s word that Becky isn’t Courtney. On the one hand, none of those female-led bands had a frontwoman whose name would’ve been chanted in arenas. On the other hand, Courtney didn’t keep a beer-spitting shaman backstage, as far as I know. And I don’t ever recall her playing a haunting voice-and-piano version of Bryan Adams (yes, that’s Bryan Adams, not Ryan) for Frances Bean. So, I can’t point to definitive proof that the character was inspired by her. But I’m pretty sure the paparazzo who snaps a photo of her at the Something She reunion was inspired by East Village rock photographer Godlis. I’m basing that on the fact that, well, he was played by Godlis.
“Her Smell” opens at IFC Center on April 12.