Plot spoilers ahead, so proceed with caution. One minor scene in A Star Is Born is also referenced below.
In Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut A Star Is Born, there’s a scene in which his character, Jackson Maine, tells Lady Gaga’s character, Ally, that he’s written her a song for when she “comes back to herself.” At that point in the story, Jackson is less than enthused about the pop music that has catapulted Ally to a level of stardom that eclipses even his own. The music—a long way from the country ballads she wrote when they first met—isn’t authentic to her artistic spirit, he believes, and the Ally he fell in love with had something more “meaningful” to say with her incredible musical talents.
Director Brady Corbet’s sophomore feature Vox Lux swings aggressively in the opposite direction, laying bare the immense labor of creating a sellable pop fantasy and spinning commercial gold out of thin air. Talent is beside the point—pop music is at all times, an amalgam of compelling stories about the star, and how an audience receives and embraces them.
Vox Lux is a caustic, frenetic, dizzying film that isn’t shy about disabusing its audience of their romantic notions of pop stardom. Celeste’s (Natalie Portman) origin story is macabre. Thrust into the national spotlight with an anthemic track borne out of surviving a Columbine-like tragedy, Celeste’s career is initially boosted by the nation’s goodwill for her, but as she ages, she gets wise to the industry’s function as an assembly line for what she calls “people with a good story,” working overtime to make sure hers is always fresh.
Gravely narrated throughout by Willem Dafoe (who interjects at key points to guide the story’s trajectory toward the unsubtle parallel of pop music and wider social violence), the film seeks to be a satiric reflection of the current state of the celebrity machine. Celeste’s career is marked by violence at every juncture: first when she is shot; then after 9/11, as her teenage innocence slips away; and again in the film’s final act, when another act of terrorism seems to implicate the aesthetics of her public pop persona.
Celeste spends the morning of her comeback tour fielding questions about her music, her return to the stage, and her feelings about the terrorist attack. Will she cancel her show? Does she think her music promotes violence? Is pop music responsible? Celeste eschews responsibility for the attack but notes that she has no control over how her art is received when it leaves her. All she can do is create and produce with the purpose of entertaining her fans. While her music can be imbued with meaning, it is first and foremost, a product to be sold.
It’s in the too-brief scenes with her daughter Albertine (Raffey Cassidy, who also plays young Celeste) that we see how well Celeste is attuned to the precise frequency of pop as a business. The money isn’t even in the music, she says; it’s in brand partnerships, commercials, perfumes, and merchandising—the type of shilling she’s willing to partake in, albeit begrudgingly. It’s all about compromise, and everything about her star persona reflects this.
From head to toe, Celeste’s visual story reflects the narrative of her career. She dons wide costumed feathers, a phoenix rising from the ashes of her bad publicity. Her face is covered in makeup and glitter, not an inch untouched by the glamour of the stage. She wears a full body sparkling jumpsuit that covers the scar on her neck and emphasizes her tiny, lithe body. Her music (written by Sia) is frothy, catchy and fun. She describes the songs as “sci-fi anthems” that will transport her fans out of this world. Even Celeste’s dance routines (choreographed by Portman’s husband Benjamin Millepied) serve a purpose in their stark simplicity. The dances are repetitive and easy to replicate. It’s not hard to see them spreading like wildfire across the internet in different forms of parody and homage; the newest viral hit buoyed to the top of the charts through memetic replication.
With Vox Lux, Corbet speaks to how pop music is far more about the spectacle than the music, but he also examines how unnecessary intellectual rigor or technical skill is to the process. The modern pop star’s job is not to tell us how to feel, but to provide us with a template upon which to project our feelings. They bring the melodic frame and we bring the emotional heft. It is a symbiotic relationship of sorts: we pay them to reflect ourselves back to us.
The film is a fantastic encapsulation of how we think about pop stardom in the digital age, and how artists have been forced to respond to a changing industry. The ones who succeed make the switch easily. The ones who fail cling tightly to the purity of what they consider real music. Vox Lux serves as a fitting, if clumsy, acknowledgement of the new status quo.
Vox Lux screened at TIFF, and Neon has acquired distribution rights for the film’s forthcoming release.
Cate Young (@battymamzelle): smugsexual, thundercunt hagbeast.