Natalie Portman Isn't Supposed to Play a Bad Pop Star in Vox Lux. She Just Does

Image: Neon

Spoilers ahead.

The last 12 or so minutes of Vox Lux undermine what preceded it like a cruel punchline. It’s a compressed concert, one of those big theatrical stadium shows with a vision, from our protagonist Celeste (played in this part of the movie by Natalie Portman) and it is here that the movie turns into amateur (quarter-) hour. This section of the film takes place in 2017 but Celste is wearing a kind of purple leotard that would have looked passé eight years before, like something Lady Gaga wouldn’t even deign to wear around the house. The backup singers waddle around like they’re doing a sketch-show parody of synchronized swimming, or maybe the kind of smirking performance that you could see at a PC Music showcase that’s smothered by so many layers of irony that whatever it’s trying to say is muffled. The songs, all written by Sia in her signature shriek-y style, sound like bad impressions of better songs she’s already sold to other artists.

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And then there is Celeste’s staggeringly mediocre performance. In what leads up to the climax, Celeste is made out to be a legend on the scale of Britney Spears, the kind of pop star who’s managed relevance as she slides toward her third decade in the industry. She doesn’t have a tablespoon of charisma, but even an ocean liner full of it couldn’t sell her flat, nasal whine that makes bad songs worse. Her choreography is not particularly intricate or challenging, but the performance is so imprecise and sloppy that I wondered watching it if Natalie Portman, who plays the older Celeste in the movie’s second half, just kind of winged it, perhaps hoping that the hubris of such methodology would translate onscreen as the more generalized hubris one needs to get up onstage in glitter and no pants and demand to be the center of attention in a full stadium for around two hours.

It does not translate. And though the film’s gaze at this half-assed spectacle is unbroken, suggesting its writer-director Brady Corbet is in fact convinced of the excellence he’s depicting, it’s all so shoddy in a film that is otherwise calculated with the precision of a Madonna album/tour cycle. So stark is the contrast between the preceding 90 or so minutes and this stage show that I considered the possibility that Corbet was making an oblique rockist statement on the innate worthlessness of pop music. We spend so much time attempting to understand Celeste—the first half of the film shows her ascent to stardom at 14 (in this section, she’s played by Raffey Cassidy, who then transitions to playing Celeste’s daughter during the film’s second half, which takes place about 17 years later). Certainly, it struck me that I’d have a much harder time caring about the 2017 Celeste if I’d seen her perform before learning about what had come to make her tick. Maybe Corbet’s point, I thought, was that humanity is pure seductive spectacle and that pop music’s necessary compression and dumbing down of it means that the form is innately garbage. I don’t agree (not generally, although there are artists that make me reconsider my ostensible love of pop, and the list grows by the year), but I could see how someone who isn’t so invested would want to make that argument. Hell, I’ve heard it being made before.

So vexing was this that I decided to ask Corbet directly. I’d seen the movie at a special screening in late November, attended by Corbet, who then sat for about 30 minutes in front of the audience, fielding the questions of a viewer and a moderator alongside his younger Celeste, Cassidy. I asked my friend who was sitting next to me if my question seemed overly shady. He said it did not, and so I raised my hand.

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“Brady, do you personally consider Celeste to be a good pop star?” I asked when called on.

“Do you?” he asked back.

“I think she’s a fascinating person,” I said, because that is what I thought.

“I don’t know,” he said. “We really tried to make her a very good pop star. I asked Sia to make the music because I wanted the songs to be good.” He referenced the mixing of the music during the film’s 12-minute concert scene as a vague way of referencing why she may have not connected. The sound design of the scene I found about as perplexing as everything else in it—Celeste’s songs sound blown out and distorted as if you’re there in concert. Why is that? The actual filmmaking, with its several cameras and attendant exacting scope, is reminiscent of a televised concert like those that air on HBO. By the time those concerts make it to air, their sound has been pristinely mastered. Presenting the music in this way just makes enjoying it needlessly difficult.

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“The film is already so absurdist in its second half that it would have seemed, I don’t know, just mean spirited somehow, if she wasn’t talented,” Corbet continued. “But… asking a question like that, I’m not sure. I’m too close to it to answer whether any of the characters are even good people. I’m not sure.”

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For me, the final performance was such a letdown because I ate up everything the movie served for the prior 90 minutes. Vox Lux is one of several rock musicals to arrive this year—it joins a group including the overrated A Star Is Born, the critically underrated Bohemian Rhapsody, and the fairly dire Her Smell—and it’s the most satisfying of the four in many ways. If you generously interpret A Star Is Born as a sort of fairytale, its oversights are more forgivable and its broadness resembles an aesthetic choice. As though in direct conversation with a movie that was released just two months prior, Vox Lux offers you a vantage point that A Star Is Born is either too busy (if we’re being kind) or too inept (if we aren’t) to consider: The nuts-and-bolts construction of a pop star from the ground up.

Vox Lux takes you into a dingy recording booth, a cavernous dance studio (where Celeste’s floppy-limbed ambition evidently supersedes innate talent), and a reserved hotel conference room that operates as a sort of celebrity holding tank during a press junket. Its first half suggests the development of musical competence and paints a plausible scenario from which a life stricken with tragedy could yield megastardom. There’s a breathtaking moment early on in Vox Lux where a song written by Celeste and her sister Ellie (Stacy Martin) transitions from an intimate piano-based ballad to a shattering wall of string-laden bombast that blares as Celeste, her sister, and her manager (played by Jude Law) walk down a New York street. She has arrived and the movie rather elegantly and efficiently shows and tells why.

Even the minor inaccuracies didn’t disturb me. “Hologram,” which Celeste records early in her career and was the only Vox Lux song I left the theater wanting to hear again, contains sounds so trappy and a shape so EDM-my that it’s simply anachronistic that such a song would have been released around 2000. Further, its accompanying video, which strobes between Celeste riding on the back of a motorcycle driven by a guy in a glitter mask and the tunnel that they’re driving through, is way too arty for a 14-year-old teen pop star, especially one of the TRL era. Meanwhile, the film’s pronounced tonal shifts to and from extreme violence were thrilling—I felt their jarring nature on my body like G force. Corbet said that he conceived Vox Lux primarily in response to Apple News updates, which could inform you of a mass shooting and Ariana Grande’s decision to cut off her ponytail (his examples) within moments.

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“I think the juxtaposition of those things is… it’s not something that I had to create. It already exists,” he said. (I’m intentionally leaving out a discussion of the violence that contrasts with the star-making scenes so as not to spoil the earned surprises.) “And I think that it’s something very, very unique to our generation. And so, how we’re meant to cope with those things coexisting, receiving those headlines all at the same time. It struck me as something that was worth making a movie about.”

Something else Corbet said during that Q&A, though, made me question just how well-versed in pop music he was. He referenced a scene in the movie’s second, Portman-driven half in which her sister threatens to come out as her ghostwriter, the unsung force behind her music. Celeste responds with indifference, saying that nobody would care. “If someone tomorrow morning said your favorite artist—shocker—collaborated with 27 people to write your favorite song, it wouldn’t be newsworthy. That’s interesting,” Corbet explained. “I think that for us to be robbed of our drama too, to be robbed of our fiction too, that’s very heavy. The film sort of wrestles with the notion that even clichés have been robbed from us. So what do you do? Where do you go from there?”

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He contrasted it with The Rose, which this year alone has shown itself to be far more influential and relevant than just about any year since its 1979 release. He believed such a revelation of the woman behind the curtain would have mattered then, in the late ’70s. I’m not quite convinced—Celeste’s brand is plastic pop, and her music doesn’t seem confessional in any meaningful way. Audiences perhaps hold some singers who write in higher esteem than those who don’t, but look at Whitney Houston, who amassed very few writing credits throughout her reign as a global icon, particularly during her mid-’80s-to-’90s peak. Look at Mariah Carey, who from her debut’s album press cycle, has underlined her songwriting only to go on, for years, to complain that this key aspect of her artistry has been unrecognized, disbelieved, or otherwise ignored. While that may have been personally frustrating, it never impeded her commercial prospects.

As much as I enjoyed the majority of Vox Lux, it ultimately resembles a sort of self-own on the part of Corbet and especially Portman, who in retrospect, is just kind of bad in this movie, either over- or under-doing it, never quite hitting the right note. If only you could Autotune an acting performance. Hitting those notes, in fact, is what makes the difference between a superstar and a person aspiring to be one. Not everyone can be a pop star—this year’s rock bildungsromans remind us that such artists are in many ways superlative at least as workers, if not as humans, even when their flaws are ablaze. Vox Lux sometimes reinforces this idea straightforwardly, but when it does so inadvertently, it resonates loudest.

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Rich Juzwiak

Some Pig. Terrific. Radiant. Humble.