Of the many movies about rock ’n’ roll excess, it’s hard to think of one that cuts to the bone the way writer-director Alex Ross Perry’s “Her Smell” does — thanks to Perry’s intimate storytelling and a tour de force performance by its star, Elisabeth Moss.
Moss plays Becky Something, lead singer and driving force of a ‘90s punk band, Something She. In the movie’s opening act, Becky’s bandmates, bassist Marielle Hell (Agyness Deyn) and drummer Ali van der Wolff (Gayle Rankin), are backstage pacing, worried that Becky is late for the gig, as usual.
When Becky arrives, she’s a ball of nervous energy, talking a mile a minute and chanting mantras from her in-house spiritual guru, Ya-ema (Eka Darville). Also in Becky’s wake is her ex-husband, Danny (Dan Stevens), who has brought their toddler daughter, Tama, because it’s Becky’s time for joint custody. Elsewhere backstage is another musician, Zelda E. Zekiel (Amber Heard), with whom Becky has a longstanding grudge.
Perry follows Becky closely through the warren of backstage rooms, with cinematographer Sean Price Williams’ handheld camera right up in her face. This goes on, nearly unbroken, for 25 minutes, chronicling a rock star at the height of her fame and about to crash.
The second act is the crash in progress. The band has set up shop in a recording studio, waiting for Becky to find her groove and start recording songs. The head of their record label, Howard (Eric Stoltz), is out of patience and time. While Becky is busy alienating Marielle and Ali to the point of quitting the band, she also tries to sink her claws into Howard’s new act, the Akergirls (played by Cara Delevingne, Ashley Benson and Dylan Gelula).
The second act, like the first, goes on for some 25 minutes or so, the camera constantly buzzing around Becky and the other characters, capturing a segment of Becky’s downward spiral.
The third, fourth and fifth act are structured similarly, in a small area in which Becky is the focus — even when other characters, like Becky’s mother (Virginia Madsen) and a 7-year-old Tama (Daisy Pugh-Weiss), enter the frame.
Perry kicks his filmmaking scope far above the navel-gazing indie films for which he was previously known, like “Listen Up Philip” and “Golden Exits.” This movie is daring, a high-stakes bet that he can sustain the nervous energy of each of the five acts for 25 uninterrupted minutes. The bet pays off, as the extended scenes force the actors to be as raw and as real as possible.
Among the supporting players, the absolute standout is Deyn, whose Marielle is the designated grown-up in Something She, trying to keep the fragile peace and eventually realizing when it’s time to hit the eject button on the fracturing band.
But “Her Smell” rises and falls — and spectacularly rises again — on the strength of Moss’ fearless performance. Moss channels a thousand hard-luck musical stories, and all the mythology of sex and drugs and rock ’n’ roll, into this one ferocious but ultimately vulnerable character. Whether screaming at her bandmates’ betrayal or tenderly trying to reconnect with her daughter, Moss makes every moment authentic and heartbreaking.
Opened April 12 in select cities; opens Friday, April 26, at the Tower Theatre (Salt Lake City). Rated R for language throughout and some drug use. Running time: 134 minutes.