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Review: Vox Lux (2018)

Vox Lux (2018)

Directed by: Brady Corbet

Premise: Teenage Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) survives a school shooting and the ensuing media coverage of the tragedy launches her music career. Nearly two decades later, the adult Celeste (Natalie Portman) is a troubled pop star with a daughter of her own (also Raffey Cassidy).

What Works: The closing credits of Vox Lux include the subtitle “A 21st Century Portrait” and that summarizes what this film attempts to accomplish. Musical dramas, whether based on real life musicians or fictional characters, generally adhere to a familiar narrative structure. Vox Lux bucks the trend and when it does adhere to convention, the filmmakers treat it as a joke. This is a story in which a teenage girl survives a mass shooting and writes a song about her trauma. The song goes viral and kick-starts her career as a pop musician; the violence and trauma are rendered into art which is then commodified into a Top 40 hit. The story then skips ahead to Celeste, now a seasoned pop starlet, preparing for the release of a new album when terrorists commit mass murder while wearing outfits inspired by Celeste’s work; art and violence come full circle. Celeste and her people try to manage the public relations damage while Celeste copes with her strained relationship with her teenage daughter. Vox Lux boldly rejects the standard narrative formula and juxtaposes violence and trauma with frivolous pop art in a way that suggests a dark cosmic joke. This movie is also a “21st Century Portrait” of fame and celebrity. As a teenager, Celeste is relatively cool and level headed but as an adult she has regressed into a shallow and petulant diva. What the film has to say about pop music and art and the impact it has on the culture and on individuals is quite prickly but also intelligent and thought provoking. Natalie Portman plays the adult Celeste and Portman is fierce in the role, throwing herself into a troubled character without trying to make her likable. Raffey Cassidy is cast in dual performances, first as the teenage Celeste and later as her teenage daughter Albertine. Cassidy creates two distinct characters who echo each other’s mannerisms. Vox Lux also includes original songs by Sia that capture the flavor of today’s electronic pop music and Portman and Cassidy perform them well.

What Doesn’t: Vox Lux doesn’t follow the format of a typical show business tale. Most of those films follow a redemption framework in which an aspiring musician achieves fame and fortune but is chewed up and spit out by the mechanics of show business and is either destroyed or crawls his or her way back to greatness. Vox Lux deliberately subverts that kind of formula. This movie possesses a sense of humor but it is very sardonic and also very dry. The unusual narrative structure and the offbeat humor of Vox Lux make it a challenging movie that some viewers aren’t going to get. Vox Lux is the sort of film that requires effort on the part of the audience and for that reason its appeal may be limited.

DVD extras: Music video, trailer.

Bottom Line: Vox Lux is a bold and intelligent film. It doesn’t adhere to the expectations that viewers have been accustomed to expect from a musical feature. This is something darker and more complex. That may limit its appeal but the movie is a sophisticated critique of contemporary pop culture.

Episode: #740 (March 10, 2019)