Through its intermixing of hot topic issues such as terrorism and school shootings with celebrity culture, Vox Lux is a darkly themed musical epic that is unlike anything you have ever seen.
After its world premiere at the 75th Venice International Film Festival, Vox Lux was quickly garnering attention, with many touting it as the dark twin of A Star is Born due to the two’s similar themes. Vox Lux is a music-focused drama that attempts to explore every facet of fame; what ignites stardom, where it ultimately leads, as well as the cost it will tax on the individual at the center of the popularity. It is an extraordinarily unique take on this timeless concept that the trailers don’t even begin to scratch the surface of.
This drama begins with a disturbingly realistic depiction of a school shooting in 1999 as we are shown 13-year-old Celeste Montgomery (Raffey Cassidy) managing to narrowly survive a gunshot to the neck from an unstable school shooter. As Celeste recovers in the hospital with her older sister and musical inspiration Ellie (Stacy Martin) by her side, the two sisters work on composing and performing new music. Once recovered Celeste performs her newly created song “Wrapped Up” at a memorial for the shooting and quickly attracts the attention of a passionate albeit wacky manager (Jude Law). In no time Celeste’s song has become an anthem of sorts in the wake of this tragedy with the country rallying behind her.
The film is essentially composed of two portions with the first laying down the foundation for young Celeste going through the necessary stages of the music industry with the latter portion featuring a now 31-year old Celeste (played by Natalie Portman now) as a mega popstar in the midst of a tour for her latest album, “Vox Lux.” This is a far more cynical and volatile version of the character who now has a teenage daughter also played by Raffey Cassidy in a somewhat confusing, but intentional decision. After a terrorist attack with the shooters donning the mask Celeste wore in her first music video, the popstar must contend with the press and decide how she will respond to this latest act of extreme aggression in her life.
It is provocatively bold to say the least for a music drama to tie themes of terrorism and mass violence to the origins of a popstar. I must admit that throughout the film’s duration I was puzzled as to how these jarringly disparate themes would connect, and had my doubts that all the pieces would culminate into a coherent message. Nonetheless, I remained glued to the screen as with each new revelation I became better equipped to decipher what director Brady Corbet was trying to state about mainstream pop music and its worldwide impact.
It turns out that Vox Lux is less of a celebration of pop music than a scathing critique of the mindlessness it produces. The main sentiment is imparted to the audience early on when young Celeste explains that her affinity for pop music is due to people “not having to think so hard so they can just enjoy themselves.” While this type of music may arise with good intentions as a means of combatting the fear and sadness from tragedy, it is too often an empty message that is incapable of genuine healing or change. This lack of a substantial message can even contribute to further violence as is evident from the 2017 shooters wearing masks from Celeste’s video, as it is implied that they were inspired by the popstar.
The irony of a reaction to tragedy causing further destruction is driven home thanks to the clear disconnect in identity from the younger and older Celeste featured at each end of the movie. The mature, level-headed, and compassionate Celeste from the beginning is now unrecognizable as a garish, cynical superstar with an inexplicably stronger Staten Island accent than before. It appears that Celeste herself never properly healed from her traumatic experience as she now has no idea as to her proper identity as the character (hilariously at times) spouts numerous contradictions and makes little to no sense during her influential press conferences. Celeste is clueless as to what her popstar persona stands for, as are her throngs of fans who continue to hypnotically cheer her on regardless.
The mishmash of touchy subjects will not be for everyone, as this is far less accessible than recent musical drama A Star is Born. This inaccessibility might explain why Natalie Portman was recently snubbed of a nomination for the upcoming Golden Globes as she is sensational in a role unlike anything the actress has done before. When we shift to the second half of the film, Portman roars onto the screen and is transfixing as the enigmatic popstar. She is equal measures ferociously frank and clueless as she is a troubled soul with demons of her own. Not to mention that Portman nails it in the film’s concert portions, as her commanding dance movements on stage feel like that of a genuine popstar diva.
While there is no denying that Vox Lux is magnetically alluring right from the shocking intro, the film missteps somewhat with the narration from Willem Dafoe throughout. In all honesty I almost always dislike having a narrator, and prefer interpreting what is occurring on screen for myself without having it spelled out, however, it is especially inappropriate here. The self-aggrandizing philosophical musings about Celeste feel pretentious and distractingly at odds with the purposefully vacuous nature of the character.
Although the film misses a few notes here and there, this tale of a fascinatingly complicated woman’s unconventional rise to fame is well worth examining. The film’s reluctance to spell everything out will frustrate many viewers, but for those willing to ponder its meaning after the fact, it is an absorbing look at the cyclical nature of violence and the role that celebrity culture plays in facilitating this.