Rock and roll is an escapist fantasy. The drugs, the booze, the groupies, the music: They’re all part of a myth about being liberated from the social and cultural conventions that constrain us. Rock movies have affirmed this myth. From “Almost Famous” to “This is Spinal Tap,” even those films that show the dark side of the lifestyle find a way to smooth over those rough edges, make it seem fun, and encourage young men and women to join their rock ‘n’ roll rebellion.
So kudos to writer/director Alex Ross Perry and actress Elisabeth Moss, who collaborated on “Her Smell,” released in theaters this spring and now streaming, the first unsentimental rock film and one of the best movies of the year. Moss plays Becky, a Courtney Love-esque rock star on the losing side of a decade fronting a successful girl-punk trio. Like many rock gods before her, her earthly addictions have gotten the best of her, but the film wisely keeps that in the background. Instead, drugs and alcohol are just part of a screw-you philosophy that once served Becky’s attempts at myth-making but have now has consumed her soul. In the film’s riveting first scene, she paces frantically through the green room before a show, causing drama with her bandmates, her ex-husband, and anyone else she can find.
Throughout the film, and especially during this first sequence, Perry stages the action with a thrilling immediacy. The handheld camera follows Moss as she spreads her havoc throughout the backstage area. It’s a rock club, but with the dim lighting and dirty walls, it might as well be a sewer. Nothing is sexy or fun. The only formal flourish is the pulsing industrial soundtrack that matches Becky’s propulsive mood. It’s a masterful introductory scene that hooks you with its intense naturalism and never lets you go.
Much like a play, the film unfolds in just five long scenes, following Becky as she unravels and then humbly tries to put herself back together. The throbbing tension of the first few scenes gives way to a quiet humanity. It’s a movie that starts out as punk rock and ends as a ballad. At the heart of it all is the brilliant Moss, who crafts an indelible character while managing to make Perry’s esoteric dialogue – she has an annoying habit of spelling out words in the middle of a sentence – sound natural. It’s a performance of both craftsmanship and immense artistry that should pick up a handful of critics’ awards at the end of the year.
For much of the film, Becky is on the razor’s edge of sanity, but her partners in music have their own complex journeys. We watch as her bass player (Agyness Deyn) and drummer (Gayle Rankin), who tacitly condoned her behavior for years, finally develop the emotional language to fight back. Same goes for the record label owner (Eric Stoltz) who discovered Becky years earlier and now pays the literal price for her outbursts. Stoltz has been absent from the screen for too long, and his weathered presence here – his boyishness now turned weary – perfectly reflects the danger of staying in Becky’s life too long.
In a lesser movie, these characters would not get their own agency. They would be portrayed as lacking in talent and personality, lucky to be in the star’s orbit. But that’s a the tired myth-making of rock and roll. “Her Smell,” with its authenticity of character and place, te,lls a different story one that is less fun but vastly more rewarding.
“Her Smell” is now streaming on Amazon Prime.