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'Her Smell' Is A Brilliant And Blistering Portrait Of A Musician Falling Apart

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The actress Elisabeth Moss and the writer-director Alex Ross Perry previously collaborated on the independent dramas "Listen Up Philip" and "Queen Of Earth." Their new movie, "Her Smell," stars Moss as an out-of-control punk rock musician. Dan Stevens, Virginia Madsen and Cara Delevingne play characters who bear witness to her self-destructive behavior. Film critic Justin Chang has this review.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: Between her superb performances on "Mad Men," "Top Of The Lake" and "The Handmaid's Tale," Elisabeth Moss has been one of the best actors working in television for quite some time. Her excellent film work hasn't garnered as much attention, though, hopefully, that's about to change. She did steal a few scenes recently in Jordan Peele's hit horror picture, "Us," and she gives her most arresting performance yet in her new movie, "Her Smell," written and directed by her regular collaborator, Alex Ross Perry.

This is a brilliant but blistering film, and it might be too emotionally draining an experience to draw the audience it deserves. The nose-wrinkling title may not help, either. But you should see it for Moss' spectacular psychological meltdown of a performance as Becky Something, the lead singer and guitarist of an all-female punk rock band called Something She. Early on, we see a flashback to the group's '90s heyday, when Becky and her bandmates - well played by Agyness Deyn and Gayle Rankin - first landed on the cover of Spin magazine. But most of the movie unfolds much later, after fame, wealth and substance abuse have taken their toll, and Something She is now playing in smaller clubs rather than sold-out arenas. The story is divided into five acts, and while some of them are set months or even years apart, each one plays out unflinchingly in real time.

The first three acts are like the proverbial slow-motion train wreck, as Becky flails around backstage at grungy concert venues or in a recording studio verbally incinerating everyone in her midst. She lashes out at her bandmates, her manager and even her mother, who seems to be forever apologizing for having brought this monster into the world. She rips into her ex-boyfriend, played by Dan Stevens, with whom she has a daughter, and you can't help but fear for the poor child's safety whenever her mom picks her up and gives her a maniacal squeeze.

Everyone takes Becky's abuse with varying degrees of tolerance, exasperation and justified anger. About halfway through the movie, her bandmates have had enough and walk out of the studio where they've been struggling to record a new album. Three up-and-coming rockers arrive to record in the same studio. And Becky, always ready to turn her defeat into victory, draws these star-struck young women into her orbit.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HER SMELL")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) We don't need to be here. I know we can give you your space. Like, this must not be super easy.

ELISABETH MOSS: (As Becky Something) Wrong. I am the heart and soul of this band. Well, hello, I named it after myself. I found those girlies, and they were not the first and they will not be the last. I put Something She together from the ashes of failed junk bands wanting to have something in my own name like God spewing mankind. That's ancient history and so are those ungrateful wenches who suckled at the teat of success that I placed upon their mouth. But before we embark on this journey, promise me one thing. Show me honesty, and I will do the same because that is the pillar of my music. So enough with this jibber-jabber, and let's rock. (Singing) And that sums it up in one big lump.

CHANG: "Her Smell" sounds like an endurance test but as raw and abrasive as Perry's warts-and-all filmmaking can be, I found it utterly mesmerizing in its sound and fury. And I couldn't tear my eyes away from Moss, who gives us an astonishing portrait of celebrity gone ferociously to seed. Her hair has been dyed peroxide blonde as if to evoke Courtney Love, and her tongue often darts in and out of her mouth when she talks, suggesting a snake addressing its prey. Moss makes Lady Gaga in "A Star Is Born" look like even more of a Cinderella saint among pop divas. And she eclipses Natalie Portman in "Vox Lux" for sheer backstage histrionics. Unlike "Vox Lux," "Her Smell" doesn't present a lofty thesis about the dark roots of celebrity flameout. Becky is too thorny and complicated to be reduced to a symbol or a symptom of some deeper social malaise.

What's remarkable about Moss' performance, apart from her convincing display of Becky's musical talent, is that it's beautifully modulated, even at its most extreme. Becky grins and cackles like a demon one minute, then drops scarily silent the next. Even at her most unhinged, she's startlingly lucid and hyper eloquent. That might be the product of Perry's show-offy (ph) impulses as a writer, but Moss is so good, she sells them as the character's own.

In its final two acts, "Her Smell" leaps ahead to find Becky hushed and humbled at last after a few years of rehab, signaling the arrival of a significant transformation. The harshness and dissonance of Perry's filmmaking clears away, and the movie strikes a clean, beautiful chord, a moment of reckoning that feels honest, heartbreaking and completely earned. We see Becky Something with sudden clarity for the good friend she once was, the loving mother she might have been and the gifted musician she still is. "Her Smell" might not have a great title, but it gives redemption movies a good name.

GROSS: Justin Chang is a film critic for the LA Times. He reviewed "Her Smell," starring Elisabeth Moss. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Henry Winkler. He won an Emmy for his portrayal of a self-important acting teacher in the HBO dark comedy series "Barry," which is now in its second season. Winkler is known around the world for his role as the Fonz in the series "Happy Days." I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF JACKY TERRASSON'S "LA VIE EN ROSE")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF JACKY TERRASSON'S "LA VIE EN ROSE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.