I have always thought of music as the art form most deeply enfolded into my daily movements through the world. It’s been that way since I was given my first Discman, and would carefully select the day’s albums, stealth them into my backpack, and listen on repeat to lull the boredom of the long, early train ride to school. Its short aural format, broadcastable nature and three-minute burn-through make it the art we carry with us more than any other. And yet, though ostensibly a music film, Vox Lux, the second feature by American actor-writer-director Brady Corbet, is more about celebrity than song.
Like me, Celeste, the central protagonist of the new art film Vox Lux, was born on the losing side of Reaganomics, and her life crosses over from the late 1980s to a new, more manic millenium. As we move through those decades, we escalate through the commercial apparatus that distorts her personality – the music industry in the 21st century, not music, is the film’s subject. Played at age 13 by Raffey Cassidy, and residing in a working-class suburb of the American north-east, Celeste’s fame is birthed in tragedy – the first chapters of Vox Lux are devoted to a detached depiction of a Columbine-like school massacre by a gothy teen. We skid along bleak American streets, just above the ground, with emergency services. Celeste survives, and sings a Lorde-style song of hope and rebirth in a church service for the dead, a cross floating above her. Even with – especially with – the bullet in her neck wrapped in protective gauze, she’s angelic, and the song, co-written with her twin-like older sister Eleanor (Stacy Martin), is like a lullaby. In this moment, we see how, in the words of an omniscient narrator voiced by Willem Dafoe, ‘Celeste felt alive, creative and autonomous, in control of her own destiny.’ Isn’t that what every teen wishes for? And yet, her spacious, precocious song does not merely voice her own experience of living through death; the grieving American public claims it, and her, as their own.
Celeste does not merely voice her own experience of living through death; the grieving American public claims it, and her, as their own.
And so Celeste’s transcendence is short-lived. In swoop a manager, played with a beautifully sleazy scruff by Jude Law, and Jennifer Ehle’s slick record company publicist, who subject Celeste’s sci-fi, beatsy anthems to monolithic brand control. Celeste is not a girl, not even a person anymore: an American star has been born. Soon Dafoe intones that she’s ‘haunted by the nocturnal image of her sister and her manager’s betrayal.’
Flaunting the conventions of a straightforward drama, Corbet – who is of the same generation as his protagonist – rushes forward to Celeste in her early thirties, played by Natalie Portman. Her guileless vulnerability has been replaced by explosive, yoyo-ing insecurity – save for one moment when Portman turns to Law, whispers, ‘I’m scared,’ and counterintuitively smiles. Celeste now has a daughter, Albertine (also played by Raffey Cassidy), from a teen pregnancy, while Eleanor skulkingly completes the entourage, writing the songs and raising the child. The designed media blitz for Celeste’s sixth studio recording, also titled Vox Lux, is hijacked when European terrorists, wearing glitter-masks directly styled from her first video clip, let loose on a new killing spree. In looping back Celeste’s association with mass violence, the terrorists’ media strategy outdoes the pop star’s.
Corbet is clear on his storytelling mandate: sound itself is secondary to industry spectacle and branding.
Celeste is engulfed by celebrity psychosis, a quicksilver syndrome we’ve become familiar with via Britney Spears’ umbrella-wielding meltdown, Lindsay Lohan’s never-ending Mykonos party, and Kanye West’s opioid-entranced digital streams. Corbet is clear on his storytelling mandate: sound itself is secondary to industry spectacle and branding. I can’t remember one melody of the plodding electronica written for the film by Australian Sia Furler – the club logic of disinhibition that marks Celeste’s songs feels perhaps a better fit for the Swedish maestro Robyn and her propensity for Freud-level emotional insights. In any case, Corbet is toying more ironically and playfully with grand, mythic, American themes, harking back more to Portman’s descent into artistic madness in Black Swan than Lady Gaga’s earnest ascent in A Star is Born.
We never see the realm of colour that Celeste says consumed her as she lay, neck gushing, at the scene of the massacre. I think that’s a shame, as the film works beautifully at its moments of interiority, when Dafoe steps back in and the images slow down, to tell us something new about Celeste’s strange lift-off from person to idol. I suspect, however, that Corbet’s aims are actually more modest than many critics have credited: to create a fun, irony-drenched visual story that skips through a frenzied life with the rhythm of a video clip.
The constellation of plot points turn on industry and interpersonal dramas…Pop itself should be the real star.
The constellation of plot points turn on industry and interpersonal dramas, and that may be the film’s other problem. Pop itself should be the real star, and it takes a back seat until the film’s final chapter, which, like A Star is Born and Bohemian Rhapsody, is of Celeste live in concert. Search YouTube and you’ll find a clip of Beyonce, once named the world’s finest entertainer, backstage before a similar stadium event: ‘I’m ready to be desired,’ she says, indulgently, madly, to the camera. In Vox Lux, Portman’s dictatorial star power is the focus of the culmination – her glittered face, perfect profile and zero-per-cent-body-fat form in a neck-to-ankle jumpsuit. Portman flecks Celeste’s earlier scenes of crisis with the nervous, twitching neuroses of Judy Garland. In the finale, she has none of the special warmth, or that shiny, compassionate, bauble-eyed vulnerability that you associate with many uber-starlets – her currency is steeled, hard-edged charisma.
It’s this dimension of pop – its melodies and rhythms as well as its stars and followers, the feeling of being there – that I craved from Vox Lux. When the camera finally turns to Celeste’s devotees, swaying, crying, sweating in the crowd, we see her through their eyes, and she’s a deity. Even Eleanor and Albertine, edging anonymously into the fray, are won over, and the film finishes at a moment of rapture that suggests optimism as Corbet’s outcome. At the end of an ironic film where fame otherwise edges out human connection, pop – its sticky melodies and simple rhythms, with adoration and love as the art form’s dominant theme – remains as pure and beautiful as dreams.
Vox Lux opens in cinemas nationally on 21 February.