“Vox Lux” Embraces Pop Music In Its Hatred For It

Jack Julow, Writer

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Director Brady Corbet offers one of the ambitious takes on the music industry with Vox Lux. Starring Natalie Portman and Jude Law, Vox Lux examines a damaged woman becoming a pop star in an increasingly complex world. Natalie Portman acts amazingly as the damaged Celeste after suffering tragedy, while Celeste’s manager (Jude Law) leads her on her journey to pop stardom.

Vox Lux opens with a bloody tragedy where 13-year-old Celeste becomes a victim in a Columbine-esque school shooting. After watching her music teacher bleed out from a bullet wound, Celeste pleads with the teenage shooter to let the other students go free. In the tense scene, the teenage boy asks what he and Celeste would do while they would wait, to which Celeste replies, “We could pray.” Immediately after, a bullet enters Celeste’s neck and the film smash cuts to opening credits of an ambulance traveling through the countryside with images of Celeste freaking out in an oxygen mask, covered in blood. And that’s just the first five minutes.

Corbet’s sophomore feature operates in a three-ish act structure with Act I centering on young Celeste, while Act II and the brief Act III feature present-day Celeste. This storytelling choice is one of the biggest flaws, as Corbet sandwiches two entirely different narratives that do not really complement each other. I would rather have the two halves made into different films, giving each storyline more breathing room.

This issue is best seen with the significant differences between young and adult Celeste.

Young Celeste is easy to root for throughout the first act, thanks to Cassidy’s sympathetic performance. Cassidy possesses a gentleness, which makes her descent into stardom all the more terrifying as she begins to abuse drugs and enter toxic situations. However, Portman’s adult Celeste seems like a completely different character, with a weird Staten Island accent and eccentric outfits. Adult Celeste, now addicted to drugs, refuses to care for others and acts selfishly to the surrounding people in her life, unlike Cassidy’s thoughtful teenage Celeste.

Portman and Cassidy’s performances seem to contradict one another, and the issue could have been avoided with a slower transition between the two rather than the abrupt 18-year jump between the narratives. Corbet’s attempts to ease the gap with Willem Dafoe’s sardonic narration give a brief insight into Celeste’s downfall, yet the film would be stronger had the accident Celeste caused been done visually. Dafoe’s witty narration hastily tries to fix the major plot hole, but only brings more attention to the issue.

Then there’s the finale. Vox Lux ends on an epic, yet empty, note. Similar to the ending of the other recent music-based film, Bohemian Rhapsody, Vox Lux finishes with an extended performance of the artist’s discography. While Bohemian Rhapsody electrified audiences with its iconic songs and nostalgia, Corbet’s film ends with lackluster, forgettable songs by Sia that fail to add to the story in any shape or form. I especially disliked that the “Wrapped Up” reprise was skipped, where it should have finished Celeste’s tragic character arc; instead, Portman sings “EKG” while struggling to stay on note throughout the over-choreographed, autotuned performance. Corbet’s screenplay fails to have a soul under all its pretentiousness and its lame, unsatisfying ending.

Vox Lux repeatedly bashes pop music, but it incessantly relies on it. The songs in the film are not too spectacular and are extremely forgettable. The only real exception appears with “Wrapped Up,” as Cassidy sings it in tribute to the victims for the school shooting.  Vox Lux contains many false starts about themes that are never explored enough, even though they are extremely interesting. In a hotel bed, young Celeste explains to a guy that she wants to sing pop music because no one has to think about it, and they can enjoy it without much thought. Unfortunately, themes like this are cut entirely from Act II. A sister rivalry gets lost in the shuffle and awkwardly appears later, then Celeste never faces the ramifications of failing her daughter, Albertine. Religion seems to appear, but it’s subliminal at best. Meanwhile, the school shooting scene merely acts as a cheap plot device, rather than the expected thematic undertone of gun violence: the hook is catchy, but the verses lack depth.

Nevertheless, Vox Lux still has many positives that would lead me to recommend it a watch at least once. The performances are exciting to watch, especially Cassidy’s. Law adds another exceptional performance to his career with his limited screentime by bringing complexity to a usually one-note character. Meanwhile, Raffey Cassidy plays dual roles of both young Celeste and Celeste’s teenage daughter Albertine. Cassidy’s inward, quiet performance of young Celeste for the first act of the film allows the film to succeed with finesse from the first scene. On the technical side, the cinematography by Lol Crawley (“Black Mirror: Crocodile”)  stuns, with every frame dripping with beauty that evokes both neon-filled images and baroque paintings. Scott Walker’s score sets the atmosphere for the movie with a choir and epic string ensembles. The costumes in the film are gorgeous and expertly made, complemented by the Lady Gaga-esque makeup and hairstyling. Corbet manages to make the film larger than life with big ideas, even though it rings hollow at the end with a sloppy script and problematic sound mixing in the finale.

Vox Lux has the potential to gain a cult following with its provocative themes and splendid performances, even with its flaws. I have been thinking about the film for weeks, and I know it will always leave me with unanswered questions. Notwithstanding its many issues, I still partially recommend the chaotic mess and look forward to Brady Corbet’s next projects.

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