The excesses of rock ’n’ roll can get you into trouble. Look at what’s happened to various real people and made-up characters just this year on the big screen. Explanations were given as to how Joan Jett earned her “bad reputation” in the documentary with that title; Freddie Mercury took a deep dive into the well of sex and drugs and the rest in “Bohemian Rhapsody”; Ally - all she needed was one name - as played by Lady Gaga, became a successful, albeit commercialized piece of plastic in “A Star Is Born.”
Mix all of that together, along with a touch of the fictionalized Iggy Pop/David Bowie story in the great and gaudy and underrated 1998 film “Velvet Goldmine,” and you’ll have a taste of where “Vox Lux” is going to lead you.
Beginning in 1999, and spread out over a couple of decades, it’s a tale of the meteoric rise of 13-year-old would-be pop singer Celeste (Raffey Cassidy), whose career is launched after a gunman in a junior high school attack mows down students and teachers, and leaves her with a bullet lodged in her spine. But determination drives her to rise from a wheelchair at a school assembly, break into a mournful tribute-to-the-dead song she says she wrote and, as told via slightly sardonic narration by Willem Dafoe, eventually become a superstar.
Her first time in a recording studio is difficult, but her new manager (his name is never spoken but he’s played by Jude Law) gives her just the right pep talk. Soon after that, a record company executive explains that he might be able to help her, but in order to make her a viable act, she’ll first need to take dance lessons. Then some dramatic tension is introduced. Celeste and her older sister Ellie (Stacy Martin) have been inseparable since the shooting and now, even though it’s made clear that Ellie is “prettier and is a better singer,” it’s Celeste who’s on the way up.
Writer-director Brady Corbet does a nice job of unpacking a cache of moviemaking devices, ranging from breaking the film up into acts - one is titled “Genesis,” its follow-up is “Regenesis” - to splashing the screen with wild montages of the sisters and the manager on the road in Europe and, alas, the overuse of Dafoe’s narration (he’s good, it’s just that the gimmick is relied on too much). But Corbet’s strength is in letting most of his actors really get into their parts, especially when everything jumps ahead in time.
Law underacts it to just the right degree all the way through, Cassidy is now in the role of Celeste’s uppity daughter Albertine, Martin is still playing Ellie, convincingly reeking of jealousy and anger because her own talent was overlooked.
But all eyes and ears will be fixed on Natalie Portman when she takes over the part of 31-year-old Celeste. The innocence and determination of the younger version of herself is gone. The narrator tells us that she’s become a prisoner of her success, then goes on to give a recap of the many things that have gone wrong for her over the past decade, including an accident and an arrest. And there’s Portman, after a riveting presentation of Jackie Kennedy in “Jackie,” and then a sleepwalk through “Annihilation,” giving us a jaded pop star with both drinking and drug problems, along with a short temper. It’s a terrific and brave performance.
There’s another terrorist attack, this time on a beach in Croatia, where gunmen are wearing the same masks Celeste is wearing in her new video. Is it coincidence or is it a statement on the moral corruption of Western pop culture? No one knows. Neither is anyone sure if Celeste’s comeback concert tour should go on as planned. Worse, when showtime does arrive, there’s a question of whether or not she’s sober enough to get onstage.
The film’s final 15 or 20 minutes consists of that show, of mounting trouble between the sisters, surprising details - again via Dafoe’s voice - of what’s actually behind Celeste’s success and, truth be told, some pretty cool hook-filled pop songs written by Sia that are far better than most of her own catalogue of pop hits.
Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written and directed by Brady Corbet
With Natalie Portman, Stacy Martin, Raffey Cassidy, Jude Law