The actor-turned-director Brady Corbet has pulled off quite the double coup for his film Vox Lux, securing not only an original score by the late Scott Walker (his last recording, in fact) but new songs by Sia, queen of the euphoric power-ballad. Walker’s music contributes to the picture’s mood of discord, while Sia’s compositions stand in as the recorded works of a pop superstar named Celeste, played as a child by Raffey Cassidy and as an adult by Natalie Portman. Both musicians have avoided some of the pitfalls of celebrity – Walker with his reclusiveness and Sia in her taste for masks and on-stage surrogates – and a similar tension lies at the heart of Celeste. She becomes famous at 13 when she survives a high-school shooting and performs a song at the memorial service. A producer suggests a change in the lyric from “I” to “we” and suddenly her pain is universal: it belongs to everyone, and so does Celeste. She’s the people’s (pop) princess.
The first section of Vox Lux compresses several years in her rise to success. She acquires a manager (Jude Law) who encourages her to manufacture a sense of intimacy, to sing like no one’s listening. The bandages on her neck covering a bullet wound are replaced with stylish chokers and boas so that a physical defect becomes a kind of selling point. Cassidy’s haunted performance goes in and out of focus in a way that suggests Celeste is browsing through radio stations in her head and occasionally getting lost in the static. Lying in bed with the singer of a death metal band, her idea of pillow talk is unorthodox. “You make the same sort of music that the boy who attacked me listened to,” she tells him.
The second part jumps forward 16 years and covers the day of a comeback show for the singer in New York, which happens to coincide with the massacre of holidaymakers on a beach in Croatia. The gunmen’s faces are hidden by the gold-sequinned masks from one of Celeste’s earliest pop videos, released around the time of 9/11. No one involved in the film seems to have noticed that this would render them rather passé – the equivalent of terrorists today wearing Kiss face-paint or “Thriller” jackets.
Corbet’s thesis that a world in thrall to spectacle risks conflating hedonism with horror has a strong whiff of the undergraduate about it. In practice, though, his movie is a satisfying experience that consistently resists hysteria. The wry twinkle that Willem Dafoe puts into every line of his archly literary narration (“In the beginning, Celeste was kind and full of grace, and at least she wrote her own lyrics”) encourages the impression that the film is a portentous parable while also undermining it.
The vitality of the performances, at least, is unambiguous. It’s always a risk to share a part between two actors, forcing us to bid farewell halfway through to a performer we have grown to admire, but the film casts Cassidy as both the young Celeste and the adult one’s troubled daughter. And Natalie Portman has more fun than usual: with a chewy Staten Island accent, some Katharine Hepburn head-wobbles and a range of jerky wise-guy hand gestures, she’s one “fuggedabaddit” away from being a cast member in The Sopranos.
She captures nicely Celeste’s amusement at the correlation between falling quality and rising popularity: her videos are worse these days, but they’re doing better than ever. As a girl, she tried to placate the school shooter by inviting him to pray – now she renounces religion and claims, “I’m the new faith”, a remark no mainstream American performer would risk making. It’s a small misstep here, as is Celeste’s stage show, which in the age of the Beyoncé stadium spectacular looks positively frugal. (Coloured bodysuits and a slide-show of abstract nouns is as good as it gets.) But the film is in tune with the ways in which the erosion of privacy has been normalised. “I’m a private girl in a public world,” sings Celeste in the movie’s climax, some time after a complaint by her manager that the record company “couldn’t sell a life-jacket to Natalie Wood” – a remark that shows how tragedy can always be reborn as pop-culture product or punchline.
Vox Lux (15)
dir: Brady Corbet
This article appears in the 02 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, A very British scandal