female fame through a male lens
'Her Smell' and 'Teen Spirit' are the two latest films to add to the expansive canon of male-directed female fame biopics.
Her Smell (2019)
It’s been a matter of months since the internet buzzed with talk of Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born and Brady Corbet’s Vox Lux, two contrasting male visions of female fame that rest upon each shoulder -- one good and one evil.
This month audiences are in for slight déjà vu, with the release of Max Minghella’s Teen Spirit and Alex Ross Perry’s Her Smell. These films similarly explore the stardom of female vocalists, though perhaps are even further in difference than Cooper and Corbet’s films. Yet all four dabble in faulty feminine validation, and bear the pockmarks of female personalities filled in by pop culture tropes, recalling a recurring disconnect in the history of movies about female musicians -- some more cringe-worthy than others.
A neon faux-fantasy of exceptionalism, Minghella’s Teen Spirit resembles the narratives favoured by singing contests like The Voice or American Idol, in which individuals are made meaningful by their musical abilities, and decorated with slim backstories strategically curated to yield empathy and inspiration. The unfailingly captivating Elle Fanning plays 17-year-old Violet Valenski with the gravitas that occasionally outweighs the film’s generic trappings. Nevertheless, very little about her character signals interiority beyond her one-track desire for recognition. Reserved and untalkative, Violet is an unemotive weirdo to the kids at school, who know nothing of her hidden talents. The daughter of a deeply religious single mother from Poland, Violet is also discouraged from taking her passion for singing too seriously. But defiance meets opportunity when auditions for the British talent competition Teen Spirit come to her small-town community on the Isle of Wight. And because she is, of course, beautiful and significantly talented, Violet triumphs in spite of the minor stumbling blocks in her way.
Of the four features, Minghella’s feel-good vindication of Fanning’s Violet is arguably the least challenging. Meaning it's also the easiest to digest. It’s telling that the musical sequences are the most compelling aspects of the movie. Violet’s goosebump-inducing performances, steeped in seductive and transportive stage lighting and interspersed with cuts to memories of solo headphone dancing, and quality time with her beloved unicorn-white pet horse, cleave the formulaic narrative with the emotional spike of a good pop song.
It’s in this context that audiences truly connect with Violet, who is otherwise awkward, catty and, at her worst, embittered. Instead of authentic character development, we merely get improved performances, Violet’s complexity is premised on her singing ability and the frustrations related to the unlocking of its full potential. Her defining trait is merely that she is an artistic “genius”, an undiscovered star, while her relationship with her once-disapproving mother, her tough-love father surrogate, Vlad, and her identity as a Polish immigrant, are forgettable narrative elements.
So just like that, Violet goes from waiting tables to signing record deals in a pink fur coat. It’s not that fame doesn’t necessarily work in this magical way (I’m sure it can for some fortunate few), the problem is that Teen Spirit so uncritically buys into the value of fame as a sort of divine justice for the talented. It’s a touching myth when attached to a sympathetic young face, but also a hollow one that betrays Minghella’s simplistic appraisal of how a woman might achieve self-realisation.
There’s a moment in Her Smell, a film that follows Becky Something (Elisabeth Moss), the lead singer of punk rock band Something She, when flashback home video footage shows the band celebrating their first magazine cover. It’s a much more muted version of success than the glamorous takes of films like Teen Spirit, replacing adoring fans and luxury hotels with cigarettes and sloppy dancing in a fluorescent-lit backroom. While Becky might have enjoyed her share of luxury and fandom in her heyday, this ideal is nowhere to be seen in the challenging, roughly two-hour run of Her Smell. Instead, we get dark magic voodoo rituals, neglected children, and lots of cocaine; the shinier perks of stardom have long been buried by years of iniquitous behaviour and abuse.
That Teen Spirit resembles Nirvana’s nihilistic grunge anthem, Smells Like Teen Spirit, in any way (if even just shared wordplay), would seem like a bad joke considering the film’s uplifting cotton candy messaging. On the other hand, Her Smell, so far removed from the world of starry-eyed teen hopefuls, practically embodies Kurt Cobain’s dingy malaise. Set in the 90s, and riffing off the frenzied rock and roll world of Riot Grrrl and Courtney Love, Moss and Perry’s third collaboration is a trip down the rabbit hole of a woman replaced by her own toxic public persona. Structured like a play in five acts, the film begins on a note of palpable deterioration, with Something She on the verge of collapse. Sabotaged by Becky’s uninhibited raving and emotional schizophrenia, the band is forced to cancel their European tour, and their beta-male manager is left clinging to his last credit line.
Like the discomfiting first part of Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void, which experiences the world through the protagonist Oscar’s blinkered, acid-fuelled point of view, Her Smell traps audiences in Becky’s mind in a similarly terrifying way. An ominous score pulses through skeevy backstage corridors as if blown eardrums have whittled our hearing down to pure bass palpitations. A delirious handheld camera stumbles along with Becky as she threatens a bandmate with a broken beer bottle and falls over, baby daughter in hand, into her own pool of vomit.
Her Smell isn’t just about the poetic chaos of Becky and the ruin she leaves in her wake, however. Redemption is also central to Becky Something’s story. Director Alex Ross Perry traces over her scars and bruises, and those she’s left on others, rather than depicting Becky’s healing as a return to her former glory. Her Smell is not an interrogation of fame as in Vox Lux, the story of fame as a conclusive reward as in Teen Spirit, or fame as self-realisation at the expense of love as in A Star Is Born, it’s an unflinching and intimate portrait of a woman finding value in herself and others outside of fame.
Nevertheless, the recurrence of male fascination with female stardom evinced by these four directors points to a questionable trend that extends decades back. The three past iterations of A Star Is Born directed by William Wellman (1937), George Cukor (1954), and Frank Pierson (1976) come to mind, but also Bill Condon’s story of a trio of black songstresses, Dreamgirls (2006) , and Gregory Nava’s Jennifer Lopez-led biopic Selena (1997). Maybe it’s that the otherness of feminine identity better captures the rallying underdog spirit of a righteous rise to celebrity. Men, on the contrary, hardly experience the scrutiny of female entertainers that suffer breakdowns (Courtney Love, Britney Spears) or are maligned as bitches or divas (Mariah Carey, Madonna) whose souls have been sucked out by commercial capitulation.
Although Bradley Cooper insists his film is about Lady Gaga’s Allie, her character is too often a foothold for Jackson Maine’s reckoning. And even after his death, Allie remains a repository for his memory rather than a woman liberated from a burdensome relationship. Likewise, Natalie Portman's Celeste in Vox Lux certainly commands the screen with her provocations, and yet Corbet is more concerned with explaining "society" through celebrity symbolism than he is Celeste's inner turmoil. Minghella’s Barbie-doll portrayal of Fanning’s Violet feels plastic, rather than made of flesh and bone. Perry’s efforts make Becky ugly, vulnerable, terrifying, and sympathetic; she’s certainly the most autonomous of the bunch, yet there remains a lingering stiltedness in her understanding of motherhood and female friendships. So much of Her Smell is overpowered by Becky’s madness.
Are audiences attracted to the rise and fall of female stars because their stories are universal? Or are ideas about what celebrity means and looks like so accessible and ingrained in our shared cultural imaginary that we more easily relate or sympathise with these stories over others? What could universal possibly mean when most of these films say little about the individual behind the mask? In practice, interpretations of female fame so often assume the mythological dimensions of celebrity personas and typecasts through the lens of male directors. Audiences today should begin to wonder what these female experiences might look like from the eyes and soul of a woman.