The success of any film about fictional musicians can well rest upon the quality of the songs written for the movie. If the fictional musical act fails to convince us that that they are as talented as the movie wishes us to believe they are, everything else will crumble. But even if the songs in Vox Lux were any good – and boy are they not – the film would still collapse under the weight of an aimless screenplay and a ridiculous accent from star Natalie Portman.
Celeste is a Staten Island teenager who survives a Columbine-esque school shooting, though she will carry a bullet lodged in her spine for the rest of her life. After her recovery, she sings a song her sister wrote at a memorial service for her fallen classmates which is broadcast nationally and becomes an anthem for that moment. A recording contract follows, a soon she is on her way to Europe to record an album and to be tempted by the vices of the music industry.
We jump forward eighteen years to the present. Celeste (Natalie Portman) has a daughter (Raffey Cassidy, who played teen Celeste in the film’s first act) although the two rarely talk. While prepping for the kickoff show of her first tour in over two years, word comes that there was a mass shooting at a European beach resort and the attackers were wearing masks similar to one Celeste wore in an early video. While trying to repair her relationship with her daughter and sister as well as be ready for her show in a few hours, Celeste now finds herself fielding questions about the attack at a pre-arranged press interview.
Accent work can be tricky for an actor, and sometimes a bold choice with an accent will either make or break a performance. In this case, though, Portman’s attempt at a Staten Island accent comes across more like an irritating person at a costume party insisting they do their not-very-good My Cousin Vinnie-era Marisa Tormei impersonation at a decibel level too high for the room. To complicate things, Portman plays Celeste as a snarling punker more so than a pop diva overwhelmed by their fame that the script insists that the character is. A much better performance comes from Jude Law as Celeste’s manager, who gives his voice a scotch-and-cigarettes burned growl that adds a slight patina of sleaze to his character.
Actor turned writer/director Brady Corbet’s screenplay seems to want to present the story of Celeste as something of a modern fairy tale. The periodic voice over – coming from an uncharacteristically warm and genial Willem Dafoe – hints at a tone that could almost be whimsical, bordering of Wes Anderson-lite. (“At least she wrote her own lyrics… At first. No one could take that away from her.”) But directorially, Corbet seems to have no such intentions with the story, certainly not visually or tonally. The film has a much more natural look to it than Anderson’s whimsical symmetry. We get the feeling that Corbet wants to be saying something about the nature of celebrity with the film, but the fact that he references three horrific news stories in the narrative – the Eric Harris/Dylan Klebold analogue school shooting that opens the film, the 9/11 attacks that are mentioned at the close of the first act and the terrorist attack that somewhat resembles the July 22, 2011 murders committed by right-wing extremists in Norway – leaves a rather bad taste in one’s mouth as well as the inclination to not want to delve too further into whatever is on Corbet’s mind here.
One wants to be sympathetic to Celeste when word comes that the shooters appropriated her look from an old video for their horrific attack. We see her try to wrestle with her own feelings about this for a brief moment in her press interview before her ego kicks in and she makes the most obnoxious, wrong-for-the-moment statement since John Lennon declared that the Beatles were “bigger than Jesus.”
But the moment of truth for the film comes when we finally get to the Celeste’s big concert. There is none of the spectacle that one would expect from a pop star of Celeste’s supposed magnitude. We are given what seems to be the full production numbers for several songs, yet they all sound similar with no catchy musical hook to engage the ear. Furthermore, Celeste stays in one costume, a sequined body suit, for the entire time, when it feels like there should be at least one costume change amidst all the smoke and light show pageantry.
However, even if the songs and concert production were any good, the film is already too far gone by this point. And the disappointing concert doesn’t even given us anything catchy to hum as we exit the theater.