#SGWatch4U: Vox Lux, the year-end’s glittery antithesis to A Star Is Born

#SGWatch4U is our screen review column where we tackle anything from film to TV/Netflix.

The music industry has always had its fair share of criticisms—on how relentless it is, and how it manipulates young dreamers often to breaking point. We’ve seen it happen to practically every Disney Channel star forced to attempt a singing career, from Britney Spears to Miley Cyrus (bless Hillary Duff who turned out fine). But cocooned away in Singapore, where any commercial talents we have are either shipped out to Taiwan or imported and claimed as our own, we have little to no idea what the real music world is like. That’s where American cinema comes in.

In Vox Lux, Natalie Portman plays a grown-up, world-famous pop star, though we only actually see her in the second half of the film. In three parts, the film charts her beginnings as a child star and the ups and downs of stardom, up to present-day. Her name: Celeste Montgomery, a painfully average one equally matched in talent—perhaps the film’s first call-out on an industry that seems to favour grooming mediocre individuals into stars. The first time young Celeste (British actress Raffey Cassidy) opens her mouth to sing, her musical chops are tolerable at best.

And really, that’s because Celeste is just ordinary. Director Brady Corbet calls her discovery her “Genesis” as if it were some divine phenomenon, but in actuality Celeste is simply talent-spotted for an unfortunate backstory. She survives a chilling school shooting that takes place in the first 10 minutes of the film, appears on a televised broadcast singing a tribute, and is instantly scooped up by an eagle-eyed manager (Jude Law) to make into the next big thing. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time becomes her big break; nauseating as it is, the idea of this happening in the real world isn’t all that improbable.

, #SGWatch4U: Vox Lux, the year-end’s glittery antithesis to A Star Is Born
Raffey Cassidy as young Celeste gets to work in the recording studio

With her trauma her main marketing tool, Celeste spends the next chunk of the film experiencing the highs of being a star. There are parties, drinking, and meaningless interactions with boys; spliced by haunting narrations from Willem Dafoe (which contribute to the few enjoyable moments in Vox Lux). When asked why she chose her particular genre, Celeste says: “That’s the thing about pop music—I don’t need people to think too much about it; I just want them to feel good.” This insincere, overused cliche will end up being drastically ironic, when we see the film and Celeste herself spiral in the very maximalist second half.

When Natalie Portman finally arrives onscreen, her delivery is sharp and affecting. She’s been exploited by the all-consuming industry from day one, and the effects of that show in her drug-fuelled panic attacks and short temper. Portman has proven before she can do dark and messed up in Black Swan; for Vox Lux, she transitions seamlessly from tormented ballerina to angry pop star, complete with an aggressive Staten Island accent that will bother you for days.

The film doesn’t afford its audience time to settle into meeting adult Celeste. It’s the day of a big concert tour, and she’s rushing around preparing for press conferences and quashing rumours, as celebs do. During this time Corbet stereotypes, with great fervour, almost laughable hallmarks of superstardom: mononymous stage names (somehow Portman’s mundane Celeste ranks up there with the likes of Rihanna and Madonna); paparazzi-induced public breakdowns; a teenage daughter. Because of course Celeste had a child out of wedlock along the way.

, #SGWatch4U: Vox Lux, the year-end’s glittery antithesis to A Star Is Born
Cassidy (left) also plays Celeste’s teenage daughter later on

And then there are the cheesy pre-show prep and rituals, the over-the-top costumes and staging—Vox Lux screams in your face that it’s all performance. Portman has even said in an interview that her accent was deliberately overdone to demonstrate Celeste’s act of false toughness. In the finale concert sequence (an impressive full-length performance), she gyrates robotically to a futuristic theme enforced by her management; and you can’t help but bring to mind Katy Perry and Lady Gaga during their infamous phases of tack and gimmick in the early 2000s. It’s no meat dress or whipped cream-firing bra, but Celeste’s bedazzled unitard and matching show convey the same lost desperation.

The whole presentation is just filled with such overwhelming ugliness it quickly becomes apparent how everything is a farce—Celeste’s life, her success; this movie. Meanwhile, giant text on the screens behind her flash from “Pray” to “Prey”, which is actually pretty ingenious albeit obvious symbolism.

It’s hard not to make comparisons to Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born, released just two months ahead, when watching Vox Lux (coincidentally, both films had their world premiere at the 75th Venice International Film Festival.) Both deal with the ugly contentiousness of showbiz; both take pains to wrestle the innocence of former nobodies away from them, to illustrate the price of fame. But while A Star Is Born teases the journey through a mix of awe-inspiring talent and romance, Vox Lux abandons all subtlety for a brusque expose on how uncompassionate the industry can be. Forget a slap to the face; the movie offers multiple slaps before ruthlessly chewing its viewers to pieces and spitting them out again.

Don’t be surprised if by the end you find yourself gasping for air, or itching to leap from the cinema and make a run for it. Vox Lux doesn’t care about happy endings, or even any kind of resolution at all; the industry isn’t about to slow down or go easy on its victims anytime soon. The greater critique here might be on us, the voracious fans who lap up anything producers and managers shove our way. If we as consumers cannot learn to be discerning, it perpetuates a never-ending demand for fast music that doesn’t just harm individuals, but also gives us terrible music. For an overtly uncaring film, Vox Lux wants to say a lot. So is it hard to watch? Exceedingly; but then most of real life is.

Vox Lux recently had its Asian premiere at the 29th Singapore International Film Festival.