An unusual set of circumstances brings unexpected success to a pop star.
Encompassing themes of celebrity, childhood and terrorism, ‘Vox Lux’ is the second film from actor turned director Brady Corbet and it is every bit as ambitious and interesting as his first, ‘The Childhood of a Leader’. Corbet had some success in his younger days as a child actor so it perhaps shouldn’t be a surprise that his first two films are focused on childhood and how it shapes us as adults and ‘Vox Lux’ has an interesting take on this journey.
‘Vox Lux’ refers to itself as ‘A 21st Century Portrait’ and it uses the origins and rise of a pop star to scrutinise celebrity culture with Natalie Portman’s Celeste at the heart of the story in two timelines, beginning in 1999 with Celeste’s teenage years. Celeste (played by Raffey Cassidy at this point), alongside her sister Ellie (Stacy Martin), is a survivor of a school shooting who attracts a degree of fame after writing and performing a song about her experience. She attracts the attention of a sleazy manager (Jude Law) and he sees in her a talent that can be honed for greater success, money and fame, but ‘Vox Lux’ isn’t purely an origin story and we soon find ourselves in 2017 as Celeste, now a global superstar, prepares for a show to launch her new album. Corbet goes to great lengths to draw comparisons between the innocent teenage Celeste in 1999 and the damaged, cynical version she has became in the present timeline, with the terrorism incident that catapulted her to stardom coming full circle as terrorists use her iconography during an attack shortly before her show. Natalie Portman is excellent in the central role and ‘Vox Lux’ raises a lot of interesting ideas, but I did think that Corbet struggled to find the clarity required to successfully make his points.
I didn’t like the voiceover (even coming from the excellent Willem Dafoe) and I felt Corbet was trying too hard to draw parallels between Celeste’s journey and the terrorism incidents which didn’t feel like an organic development. It’s a lot stronger on the media elements and the way it depicts an industry that can chew someone up and spit them out, using them as a commodity for as long as possible and for as much as they’re worth, and the filmmaking is visually striking and always engrossing. The original songs that Celeste performs were written by the Australian pop singer Sia and they’re perfectly judged for the material, with perhaps the most interesting note for Celeste’s transformation being shown through the contrast between the impersonal, superficial pop music she performs in 2019 versus the deeply personal song that brought her fame many years earlier.
‘Vox Lux’ isn’t quite as strong as ‘The Childhood of a Leader’, a unique and powerful film about the origins of a dictator, but this is an intriguing second film from Brady Corbet and he continues to carve out a career as a fascinating filmmaker with a singular vision.
Directed By: Brady Corbet
Starring: Natalie Portman, Raffey Cassidy, Jude Law, Stacy Martin, Jennifer Ehle, Willem Dafoe, Maria Dizzia, Christopher Abbott, Meg Gibson and Matt Servitto