If pain and trauma are the wellspring of great art, well then Celeste, the one-named heroine in Brady Corbet’s provocative pop star movie Vox Lux, has a big head start on everybody.
In 1999 — the year of Columbine — at age 14, Celeste is the lone survivor of a horrific shooting that’s happened before the opening credits roll. A piece of bullet is lodged permanently in her neck, and while in the hospital, she and her sister Eleanor write a healing song together. Celeste sings it at a memorial service shown around the world. A pop star is born.
Traveling with Jude Law (credited only as The Manager), Celeste (played by English actress Raffey Cassidy in the first hour), and Eleanor (Stacy Martin), go to Sweden to work with a song doctor modeled after real life hit maker Max Martin.
In rapid succession, sweet, determined Celeste meets a British rock star, gets pregnant, and the World Trade Center towers come down on Sept. 11. As Willem Dafoe explains in the malevolent voice-over that gives Vox Lux an intentionally heavy-handed semidocumentary feel, the young singer’s “loss of innocence curiously mirrored that of the nation.”
Cut to the present day and Celeste is … Natalie Portman! Seventeen years have passed as 30-year-old wunderkind Corbet raises the curtain on what he portentously calls Act II: The Re-Genesis. (Corbet’s art house directorial debut, 2015’s Childhood of a Leader, was about the rise of 20th-century fascism.)
Now 31, Celeste is battle scarred by the 21st-century pop music wars. She’s had tons of hits, and they really do sound like hits, because they were written by Sia, the Australian singer who’s penned smashes for Rihanna, Beyoncé and Christina Aguilera. And Vox Lux’s cred doesn’t stop there: It’s got a booming, doomy score by Scott Walker, the septuagenarian cult pop composer (not the outgoing Wisconsin governor).
Celeste is adored by millions, not so lovable in person, with a combative personality and an exaggerated Staten Island accent. In fact, she might be a monster. The white stripe on the side of her sculpted hairdo suggests Elsa Lanchester in The Bride of Frankenstein, and Dafoe’s narrator suggests she might have done a deal with the devil à la bluesman Robert Johnson.
Portman’s portrayal is over-the-top and jarring. It’s hard to believe that she’s the same person as the wounded doe-eyed Celeste played by Cassidy as a teen. She’s swaggering, the polar opposite of Nina, the trepidatious ballerina Portman won an Oscar for in Black Swan.
But that’s the point. A lifetime as the always-performing figure at the heart of the pop spectacle has turned Celeste into a different kind of human. Her inner circle underscores the idea. Law’s manager and Celeste’s publicist (Jennifer Ehle) appear to have not aged despite the passage of time. Eleanor is weirdly played by Martin both as a teen and an adult. And Cassidy reappears as Celeste’s now-teenaged daughter. Everyone around her looks the same. Celeste alone is transformed.
Vox Lux’s second half happens as Celeste is about to relaunch her career after a drug- and alcohol-related hiatus. A new album — called Vox Lux — is about to drop. A hometown concert is being staged, and a press day scheduled. (One thing that bugged me: A day full of “roundtable” interviews at a New York hotel is a convention of movie promotion, not the music business, and particularly not on the day a tour begins. Not realistic!)
The day turns into a crisis-management crucible because of news that, far away on a central European beach, armed killers have attacked vacationers while wearing masks identical to ones worn by Celeste in a video for one of her biggest hits.
That plot line allows Corbet to make big-idea points about the spectacle of pop and the theater of terrorism in the 21st century. And it creates drama as Vox Lux hurtles towards its conclusion.
Will Celeste be able to stay on message and convince the media she really cares about the suffering of that day’s news cycle’s victims? Will she be able to hold it together enough to give us what we’ve been waiting for: the sight and sound of a glammed-up Portman as Celeste onstage providing a transcendent experience to her faithful fans?
Among the trio of multiplex attractions that includes Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga’s A Star Is Born and Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody, Vox Lux is the least conventional, by a mile. It’s not an easy watch: It might be the darkest pop music movie ever made. But it largely succeeds at its main goal, which it not to entertain, but make you think.
Directed by Brady Corbet. With Natalie Portman, Jude Law, Raffey Cassidy, Willem Dafoe. Distributed by Neon.
Run time: 1 hour, 50 mins.
Parents guide: R (language, some strong violence, and drug content)