Plot points for both “Vox Lux” and “A Star Is Born” are in this post, so consider yourself warned about spoilers.
“A Star Is Born,” Bradley Cooper’s reworking of Hollywood’s foundational myth with Lady Gaga in the part previously played by Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand and others, deserves every penny of its box-office success. It’s a bittersweet crowdpleaser with knockout tunes and a handful of great performances. That said: It is unfortunate that “Vox Lux,” a movie with far more interesting things to say about the nature of modern celebrity and pop stardom, will in all likelihood be seen by a fraction as many people.
“Vox Lux” chronicles the rise and resurgence of Celeste (played as a teen in the first half of the film by Raffey Cassidy and as a 31-year-old in the second half of the film by Natalie Portman), a pop star born in tragedy and forged by the fires of celebrity. By tracking her journey from Staten Island to Sweden and back to Staten Island again, we glean more insight about the nature of contemporary pop and the horror show of modern celebrity from “Vox Lux” than we possibly could from a movie as beholden to the past as “A Star Is Born.”
Celeste first appears on the national scene after singing a song at a memorial event following a school shooting. Injured in the shooting herself, she channels her anger and sadness into a middling warble that becomes a pop anthem. “It was not her grief, it was theirs,” narrator Willem Dafoe explains of the song’s power. “Simply put: It was a hit.”
The hit leads to a demo, the demo to airplay and in-store showcases, and the airplay and in-store showcases to Sweden. Celeste and her sister Eleanor (Stacy Martin) head to the Scandinavian country with their manager (Jude Law, referred to only as the Manager in the credits) in order to work with the best in the business. The best in the business is a Swede, who, we learn in another Dafoe voiceover, has become the best because the Swedish people made a conscious decision years ago to teach their children about classical music in order to stave off the wickedness of modernity. The unintended consequence of this reactionary thinking has turned Sweden into an industry cluster for the mass production of popular music.
There’s something quaint about trying to understand stardom without understanding the Max Martin phenomenon, and “Vox Lux” does more to explain how the music industry works in two minutes of voiceover and montage than any movie this year has done with the entirety of its screen time.
Our collective status as “prisoner[s] of a gaudy and unlivable present,” one that has “reached an extreme of their cycle” is one of “Vox Lux’s” key insights. Director/screenwriter Brady Corbet borrowed Italian writer Italo Calvino’s language from “Invisible Cities” to emphasize the dislocation of our moment, one in which social media and 24/7 news channels have made mistakes impossible to forget, the horrifying impossible to ignore. A pop star born of mass murder in turn inspires mass murder herself, and the film’s second half opens with a mass shooting in some Central European beach town, the killers wearing masks made famous by the pop star some years before in her first music video.
“Vox Lux” isn’t asking us if we want to live in this horrid, squalid world of celebrity and superstardom where the only things that matter are what can grab your eyeballs long enough to earn a chyron on cable news. It is, rather, informing us that we do live here, that we have not necessarily chosen this life but we at least acquiesced to it. And that we narcotize ourselves with popular music to fade the pain.
What “Vox Lux” gets most right about pop music is the effect it has on listeners and performers alike. The final 15 minutes of the movie portray the opening night of Celeste’s comeback tour, and the original songs, written by Sia, feel transformative, almost magical. You see as much on the faces of her fans, her “little angels,” a not-so-oblique allusion to Lady Gaga’s “Little Monsters,” as they rapturously absorb her music. (Ironically, “Vox Lux” is a better movie about Gaga than Gaga’s own movie.) You see it on the faces of Celeste’s sister and daughter, who have treated the singer with something like fearful contempt until now. And you see it on Celeste’s own face, as she disappears into the role of icon despite just moments before being a blubbering, screaming, drug-and-booze-addled mess.
This is what “Vox Lux” does most successfully: demonstrate the power of pop. As a rockist — that is, someone who believes commercial music’s highest form involves a guitar, a bass, a set of drums and a dude who has written his own lyrics — I concurred with “A Star Is Born’s” sneering dismissal of pop’s inherent artificiality. But as a lover of popular art, I admire “Vox Lux’s” defiance, its ability to show you the artifice yet still make the music matter. It’s the most surprising cinematic achievement of the year, and I hope you seek it out.
Read more by Sonny Bunch: