Caveat to Sia fans: Don’t go see Vox Lux just because you want to hear your idol’s compositions. The movie does end with an extended concert sequence featuring several Sia songs written expressly for the movie, and they’re not bad, but before that you have to sit through a lot of screaming and weeping and bad feelings that no amount of angtsy pop music can make up for. In theory, the movie, about the unusual rise of a mainstream female pop star named Celeste (Natalie Portman), has an interesting premise, and for a while you seriously wonder where director Brady Corbet is going with it. As a child, Celeste was involved in a school shooting and barely got out with her life. As she recovers from major surgery, she (played as a child by Raffey Cassidy) and her older sister, Eleanor (Stacy Martin), write songs together and then perform one of them at a memorial for students who were killed in the attack. A record producer hears something in the song and has Celeste rerecord it with slight changes in the lyrics to make the pain of the incident resound in a country that is itself suffering from some kind of inchoate trauma. A star is born.
And the movie mostly loses whatever it was that made it interesting up to that point, jumping ahead 15 years to Celeste as an established pop star with all the attendant problems of established pop stars, or, at least, the ones that are portrayed in popular fiction: alcoholism, drug addiction, wide emotional swings, commitment issues, toxic petulance. The dramatic recreation of this train wreck of a character is hackneyed enough, but Corbet adds constant, insistent voiceover (by Willem Dafoe) explaining in pseudo-philosophical detail the reasons for Celeste’s behavior and attitude. In the meantime, Celeste has her own teenage daughter (Cassidy again) who hates her, the product of one of her many anonymous one-night stands, and her relationship with Eleanor, the person most responsible for whatever artistic integrity she can claim, has deteriorated to the point of meltdown. Put simply, the movie’s emotional volume is suddenly turned up to 11 and stays there. Though Corbet does manage a few insightful jabs at the music industry as a cannibalistic culture, they’re lost in a swirl of negativity, and it’s never clear if it’s the business or Celeste’s self-destructive nature that makes her so unpleasant as both a human being and a dramatic foil. Of course, we’re meant to understand it’s both, but Dafoe’s constant commenting make you think it’s something in the air, like a virus.
That final extended concert sequence should at least offer a corrective to all the nastiness, since we will assume Celeste will prove to us what all the fuss is about. Maybe Sia just took the money and ran, but the four songs sound pretty much the same, and the stage production betrays no imagination. Maybe Corbet intentionally wanted to show how empty this kind of stardom is, which means we’re all fools for following an artist like Celeste, but equally fools for believing you can make a movie about it that has no redeeming qualities.
Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Shinjuku Cinema Qualite (03-3352-5645).
Vox Lux home page in Japanese.
photo (c) 2018 Vox Lux Film Holdings, LLC