One can imagine how much Elisabeth Moss enjoyed playing a Courtney Love-esque weapon of self-destruction in “Her Smell,” just as Bradley Cooper had the time of his life rocking out in “A Star is Born,” and Natalie Portman probably had a blast playing an obnoxious worldwide rock star in “Vox Lux” and Elle Fanning looks like she had a ball portraying an aspiring pop star in this week’s “Teen Spirit.”
These are juicy roles, filled with plenty of opportunities for the actor to engage in much offstage melodrama AND play rock star — belting out songs and playing to the adoring crowd.
The versatile and always compelling Moss (“Mad Men,” “The Handmaid’s Tale”) is undeniably a force as Becky Something, a mercurial 1990s punk rocker and the leader of an all-female band who seems possessed with the insatiable drive to alienate everyone in her life and destroy her career.
But just as Becky wears out her welcome nearly everywhere she goes, the movie wore me down to the point of irritation.
Becky is a talent; Becky is a nightmare. Becky is haunted by her past; Becky is an addict and a narcissist and a terrible mother and terrible friend, but hey, remember, Becky is a talent.
Rinse and repeat and repeat. And repeat again.
The gifted writer-director Alex Ross Perry, filming in an appropriately gritty, sometimes claustrophobically intense docudrama style, divides the story into five chapters spaced out over about a half-dozen years from the late 1990s to the early 2000s.
Almost always looking and behaving as if she’s about an hour away from going to rehab, Becky is a blazing talent who treats her bandmates Marielle (Agyness Deyn) and Ali (Gayle Rankin) like subservient necessities; lashes out at her mother (Virginia Madsen) and her ex-husband (Dan Stevens) every chance she gets, and barely tolerates a slick record label exec with the perfect name of Howard Goodman (Eric Stoltz).
Some of these people sometimes deserve the wrath of Becky. Sometimes. But she almost always has the vitriol turned up to 11.
We see occasional glimpses of Becky’s raw talent, including a certain killer onstage performance at a pivotal moment in Becky’s life, and a lovely and quiet and tender moment when Becky is playing for an audience of one. More often, though, “Her Smell” zooms in on Becky’s epic tantrums and meltdowns, backstage and during recording sessions. When next-gen rockers played by Cara Delevigne and Ashley Benson arrive on the scene preaching a vibe of sisterhood and support, it only serves to emphasize just how unnecessarily rotten and selfish Becky has been during her quickly fading time in the spotlight.
Whether biopics of real-life legends or pure fiction such as this effort, many, if not most, rock ‘n’ roll movies are about tortured geniuses (or self-appointed geniuses) whose talent burns bright — but often not bright enough to chase away the demons lurking in the dark.
There’s much to admire in “Her Smell,” from Moss’s uncompromising and raw performance to the fine supporting work from the ensemble cast to the authentic depictions of recording sessions and backstage madness.
But stretched over 135 minutes and overloaded with shout-to-the-rafters confrontations, “Her Smell” has too much talking and squawking, and not enough rocking and rolling.
Alex Ross Perry will answer questions after the 8 p.m. Saturday and 1:45 p.m. Sunday screenings.
Gunpowder & Sky presents a film written and directed by Alex Ross Perry. Rated R (for language throughout and some drug use). Running time: 135 minutes. Opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre.