Vox Lux. Directed by Brady Corbet. Starring Natalie Portman, Raffey Cassidy and Jude Law. Rating: 6 (out of 10)
Our fascination with pop star fame and perdition continues, after a year that gave us A Star Is Born, Bohemian Rhapsody, Teen Spirit (seen at TIFF), with several more – the upcoming Elton John biopic Rocketman among them – slated for 2019.
But the angriest of these by a mile is Vox Lux, a searing indictment of pop music culture starring Natalie Portman as a whirling der vish trapped in the spotlight.
The film is a contradiction: director Brady Corbet is critical of the vacuous pop music scene and the empty promises it offers but the film never rises above the frothy excesses it condemns, even as it draws a direct link between music fame and violent-crime infamy.
Willem Dafoe is the narrator who introduces us to 14-year-old Celeste (played by Raffey Cassidy, The Killing of a Sacred Deer), a Staten Islander who suffers a traumatic injury during a school shooting and pens a song about the experience. The song touches a nerve, is a hit and becomes the cultural touchstone that helps a nation heal after another tragedy, 9/11; it becomes young Celeste’s express entrée into the world of pop music.
Aiding and exploiting Celeste is her manager (Jude Law, suitably slimy), her sister Eleanor (Stacy Martin) and a cabal of hangers-on. If the first chunk of the film chronicles the way that Celeste is moulded, formed and abused by the people around her, the rest (with Celeste played by Natalie Portman, and Cassidy now playing her estranged teen daughter) shows Celeste wreaking havoc on everything and everyone around her, just because she can and, frankly, because she knows no better.
Celeste wears severe, slicked back hair and dark, metallic makeup (not unlike the mask Portman wore in Black Swan) that hides the ravages of alcohol and drugs and the grief that propelled her here. She knows she has sold her soul to the devil (literally, but I won’t elaborate) and makes no apologies for her music. “That’s what I love about pop music,” Celeste says at one point. “I don’t want people to think too hard, I just want them to feel good.”
Things come home to roost after her music inspires a terrorist attack on a Croatian beach, perpetrated by gunmen who wear the same glittering masks featured in Celeste’s music video. (In the beginning Celeste’s tragedy was turned into a profitable career; later, her career inspires tragedy.) The intimacy of some of the key violent scenes may prove too much for those who flocked to Vox Lux expecting the standard rise-and-fall-of-a-pop-princess story.
Portman, it should be said, is superb in the role, tearing up sets and scenery with feverish resolve. But it’s not enough to unify the scattershot plot. One message gleaned from the film was made patently clear in real life after last week’s Golden Globe speeches: celebrities are no more qualified to be arbiters of political and social justice issues than we are. Why look to them for wisdom just because they have a microphone? The cult of celebrity elected a U.S. president: look how that turned out.
The lengthy end piece – featuring more music penned by Sia and choreography courtesy of Portman’s husband Benjamin Millepied – is likely to cull what is left of Vox Lux’s loyal audience. The film’s final musical sequence is supposed to be a celebration of all that Celeste has had to sacrifice to get to where she is; but by this point we’re so disillusioned by the choices she has made that it’s a little hard to sit through.
The film promises a profound tie-in between a generation of kids raised on school-shooting drills and the music purporting to heal it, or at least provide suitable distraction. But ultimately Corbet’s film fails to hit the high notes.