We’ve already had A Star Is Born here at Venice. Now, with Brady Corbet’s latest film Vox Lux, we have A Star Is Torn – a truly unique power-pop epic starring Natalie Portman as the mononymous singer Celeste, whose rise to fame is intertwined with other tragic trajectories.
Corbet originally caught our attention with the superb The Childhood of a Leader, a nuanced and visually arresting portrait of a family whose dynamics foretell an oncoming European cataclysm at the beginning of the Twentieth century. Now that century is almost over and we are in the United States of America, but despite this, Vox Lux – Corbet’s second feature – is thematically a sequel to the first, mixing an intimate coming-of-age tale with the grand narrative of contemporary history.
We first hear tell of Celeste – a pop star sensation – through Willem Dafoe’s narrator and home video footage of a child performing in front of her family. Her life will be thrown into turmoil by a shooting at her school, which will leave her with a permanent spinal injury, but also changed her life in a totally unexpected way. With her equally talented sister Eleanor (Stacy Martin) on keyboards, Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) sings a song at the remembrance service which catches the imagination of the entire nation through the gathered television cameras and becomes – Dafoe tells us – “a hit”.
From Sandy Hook to American Idol, Celeste is taken on by Jude Law’s grumpy manager, who is soon grooming her for success, jealously guarding her from publicist Josie (Jennifer Ehle) and taking her and Eleanor to Stockholm to write songs with a famous producer. The chronicling of the onward rush of Celeste’s precipitous is played out with inventiveness and exhilaration by Corbet but the chapter is brought to a close by another national tragedy: the attack on the Twin Towers.
The next chapter is set in 2017 where Portman plays the adult Celeste, a snappy, abrasive diva with alcohol on her breath, a cocaine-inspired grinding jaw and a series of dysfunctional relationships, not least with her daughter Albertine (also played by Cassidy) and her sister, who is providing the childcare. Portman is amazing, completing – after Black Swan and Jackie – a triptych of women burned by the spotlight. Her Celeste is a punkish Katy Perry, with the attitude of young Madonna.
Celeste is making her comeback, following a series of scandals, with a hometown concert that night. Her personal and addiction issues and nerves are further complicated when a group of armed men shoot up a beach resort in Croatia, wearing masks that had featured in Celeste’s video. Her manager and publicist are still on hand to try to smooth things over but power has shifted and Celeste self-destructive tendencies are also in play. An offhand comment at the press conference appears to invite a terrorist attack on the concert and now management have to decide whether to call it off or not.
Although shot before the recent Manchester bombing, it’s impossible to watch the concert footage without thinking of Ariana Grande’s concert and the way terrorism invades the world of pop and celebrity. Think of the ISIS Beatles and the atrocities, pre-packaged for YouTube. The messianic mix of pop and politics has been seen before in Peter Watkins’ Privilege, but Corbet is not making a simple allegory. He takes his pop star seriously and on her own terms. Celeste is a bitch but she is also self-critical and capable of grace; jaded certainly, but her concert is also uplifting and restorative.
The formerly religious Celeste now gives forth like John Lennon, claiming to be bigger than Jesus, but for all her showboating she’s also a star who inspires her audience. It helps that the songs – written by Sia – are excellent in themselves and never drift into simple pastiche. Scott Walker once again provides a striking, pounding orchestral score. With Vox Lux, Corbet has delivered a towering film, a unique uncompromising vision that reveals the darkness on the edge of town that lurks in the depths of the spotlight. It’s funny, thrilling, deadly serious and achieves genuine depth.
The 75th Venice Film Festival takes place from 29 August-8 September.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty