DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. In the new film "Vox Lux," written and directed by Bradley Corbet, Natalie Portman stars as a singer who survived tragedy to become a pop icon. Our critic at large John Powers says that he captures the really dark side of a star being born.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: It's been a triumphant season for movies about musicians. First came the latest reboot of "A Star Is Born" in which Lady Gaga rockets to fame as Bradley Cooper sinks into blue-eyed oblivion. It was soon followed by "Bohemian Rhapsody," which tells the story of Freddie Mercury from Queen, a band that, rather like the movie itself, was slighted by critics but embraced by the public. Both of these blockbusters end with bravura performances in front of huge, adoring crowds.
Oddly enough, this week brings yet a third movie that ends exactly the same way. Titled "Vox Lux," it's the second feature by the 30-year-old actor and filmmaker Brady Corbet. But while Corbet also shows us a star being born, his movie is far stranger and more ambitious. Stylistically dazzling and occasionally grating, this quasi-satirical work grapples with scary present-day realities the other two ignore. It's not for nothing that Corbet dubs it a 21st-century profile.
Wittily narrated by the voice of Willem Dafoe, "Vox Lux" begins in 1999 with an eerily staged school shooting on Staten Island. One of the wounded survivors is 14-year-old Celeste, played by English actress Raffey Cassidy. At a memorial, she sings a song written by her older sister, Ellie. That's Stacy Martin. And with help from a cunning manager, niftily played by Jude Law, the song goes viral, becoming an American anthem of healing and launching Celeste's career. This quiet Christian girl is transformed into a Britney-esque singer of hooky (ph) songs, written for the film by none other than Sia.
Cut to 2017 New York, and Celeste, now played by Natalie Portman, has grown into one of those troubled, drug-addled pop stars who keep TMZ in business. She's set to begin a comeback tour that night when she learns that terrorists dressed like figures from one of her videos have mowed down tourists in Croatia. Even as she tries to process this upsetting news, Celeste is squabbling with her now-estranged sister and with her alienated teenage daughter, also played by Cassidy. Here, an interviewer upsets her by asking her about beginning her new tour in her hometown and by referencing a much-tabloided car crash.
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NATALIE PORTMAN: (As Celeste Montgomery) This is a culmination of my life's work so far. You know, we worked on it for two years before bringing it to the public.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Why two years?
PORTMAN: (As Celeste Montgomery) Well, the year before that, I was under a lot of stress after my accident. And it's an expensive show to put on. I wanted to make sure all the best people became available. You know, I wanted all my best dancers back.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) But the decision to kick things off in New Brighton, you must have considered the event like a homecoming resurgence since the accident and the arrest for causing serious injury by dangerous driving.
PORTMAN: (As Celeste Montgomery) Injury, not serious injury. And I never stopped making music, so I don't consider it a resurgence.
POWERS: At the most obvious level, "Vox Lux" shows how the innocent Celeste gets processed into a brassy yet brittle pop diva who has replaced her empathy with narcissism, Christianity with cynicism and heartfelt songs born of pain with the slick product she terms sci fi anthems. As is Portman's way, she plunges into the role, sporting delirious hair, laying on a thick accent, flinging her body in dance routines, even thumping to the floor in a drug-induced stupor. In a less stylized work, such a funny caricature would be a disaster, but it's a sign of Celeste's isolation that Portman seems to be in a different movie than everyone else.
Now, Corbet is steeped in European art cinema. He's acted for Michael Haneke and Lars von Trier, among others. And he's bursting with ideas. He wants us to think about the links between today's pop stardom and terrorism, both of which seek fame through spectacle, and about the abyss separating our relentlessly shallow media culture from the deep moral and political problems we face in the long shadow of 9/11. Along the way, he suggests that our mass entertainment keeps us from facing reality.
As it happens, I disagree with this puritanism about pop culture, but I respect that "Vox Lux" actually has ideas on the subject. And I'm happy that such moralism doesn't prevent Corbet from filling his own movie with style, humor and pleasure. Scene after scene bristles with invention, be it the interplay between Sia's catchy songs and the brilliantly unsettling score by Scott Walker, the funny riffs on the creation of ABBA and the almost sinister beauty of Lol Crawley's cinematography.
The movie builds to Celeste's extravagant film-ending concert, a heavily costumed robotic program that makes the finale ambiguous in a way that it pointedly is not in "A Star Is Born" and "Bohemian Rhapsody." About halfway into "Vox Lux," the teenage Celeste says of her music, I don't want the audience to have to think hard. I just want them to feel good. As this challenging, sometimes exasperating film makes clear, Corbet feels exactly the opposite.
BIANCULLI: John Powers writes about TV and film as a critic for Vogue and vogue.com. On Monday's show - the driverless car. We talk with Samuel Schwartz, author of "No One At The Wheel." He says the future autonomous vehicles will be safer and look much different. You'll be able to sleep, eat, work and even go on a date in them. But he warns that the car industry of the future could get too powerful at the expense of pedestrians and public transit. Hope you can join us.
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BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.