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Pop Music Was 2018’s Greatest Movie Villain

Natalie Portman in Vox Lux and Lady Gaga in A Star Is Born. Photo: Warner Bros/Courtesy of NEON

Since their respective debuts at the fall festival season, A Star Is Born and Vox Lux have seemed like dark mirrors of each other. A Star Is Born hit theaters first, and as the discussion about the remake’s take on pop music ramped up over the fall, I had to laugh: If people thought that movie had a negative view of Top 40, just wait until they saw Vox Lux! When it comes to cinematic portrayals of life in the pop machine, Brady Corbet’s new film makes A Star Is Born look like A Hard Day’s Night. Bradley Cooper thinks it’s a little silly to sing a song about butts; Corbet thinks that to achieve fame and fortune in the music game you must (spoiler alert) literally be the Antichrist.

In a sense, each movie is like one half of an ouroboros — their plots seems to end where the other’s begins. (There will be more spoilers to come, though both stories are so archetypal that I consider them almost spoiler-proof.) In A Star Is Born, Lady Gaga’s Ally is an adult — Gaga was 31 when filming began — who’s embittered by a lifetime of rejection from the music industry. She links up with a charismatic mentor played by an Oscar-nominated actor, who encourages her rise to stardom, though his messy personal life causes the occasional rift between them. Dark forces (represented here by a smarmy British manager) lead her to fame and industry success, though her mentor fears she may have lost her way. He struggles with addiction, as well as an embarrassing public incident, and is ultimately taken down by his own demons, at which point Ally honors his memory by singing a heartfelt ballad at his memorial service, and, we’re led to assume, returning to a purer, more authentic sound.

Vox Lux starts with the funeral. When we first meet Celeste (played at first by British actress Raffey Cassidy), she’s a traumatized eighth-grader who’s just survived a school shooting. She writes a heartfelt ballad for her town’s memorial service, which begins her rise to stardom. She links up with a fairly uncharismatic mentor played by an Oscar-nominated actor, though his messy personal life causes the occasional rift between them. Dark forces (represented here by … well, we’ll get to that) lead her to fame and industry success, though she abandons her purer, more authentic sound. After a time-jump that sees the 31-year-old singer now being played by Natalie Portman, adult Celeste struggles with addiction, as well as an embarrassing public incident. Her older sister fears she may have lost her way, and she seems like she’s about to be taken down by her own demons, but she pulls herself together by performing a concert of her biggest hits, at which point the film’s narrator (he’s been there the whole time, I just didn’t mention it) informs us that the dark force that powered Celeste’s rise was none other than the Devil himself.

Both movies even share a handful of similar scenes: The aspiring pop star gets freaked out by the unnatural aspects of singing in the recording booth, only to overcome her struggles; the awkward newcomer learns the basics of choreography from a helpful instructor; a jaded industry veteran is upset by one of their songs playing in a bar or restaurant, and subsequently gets in a dispute with a pushy fan who demands a photo. The gambit of Vox Lux is to make Celeste both the Ally and the Jackson Maine, the wannabe with a dream and the bitter cynic (though the effect is deadened by the fact that Portman’s Celeste looks and sounds nothing like Cassidy’s; one wonders how the movie would have played had Rooney Mara, who does resemble Cassidy, stayed in the role).

In both movies, pop stardom represents an alluring but unhealthy temptation — the musical equivalent of Turkish delight in Narnia. But in Star, it’s more of an unwelcome distraction than a true villain. In the opinion of Jackson Maine — and, I think it can be argued, that of the movie itself — going pop may bring Ally worldwide fame and three Grammy nominations, but it also carries an opportunity cost: She’s got talent, and an immense platform, so why’s she wasting it singing songs about men who look good in jeans? (One of the movie’s biggest blind spots is in assuming that “Boy, could you please stop being so fine? / When I stare at you I wish I were blind” is self-evidently more stupid than “Black eyes open wide / It’s time to testify.”) Like studying abroad, it’s a mindless waste of time, but it’s one you can always come back from. Near movie’s end, Jack plays Ally a song he wrote her “for when you come back to you” — though she has abandoned her true, authentic self to get on SNL, in the end, the movie lets us know it was only a phase.

You don’t get those kinds of do-overs in the world of Vox Lux. Many critics have compared the movie to a fairy tale — not only in the narration, but also in the score, and even the characterization of the locations (Sweden is an innocent paradise; New York is cold, unhuman capitalism; Los Angeles is a hellscape of sex, drugs, and death metal) — and the plot shares a fable’s sense of destiny. The characters are not so much agents of their own fortune as they are boats pulled along by the tide of the times. (The film is subtitled “a 21st-century portrait.”) As in most stories where the devil gets involved, any decision made turns out to be a curse: Becoming a pop star turns Celeste into an empty shell of a human, lacking any empathy or organic connection to her work. “That’s what I love about pop music,” she says at one point. “I don’t want people to think too hard. I just want them to feel good.” Later she delivers a mocking monologue about how pop was created so that Americans wouldn’t have to think about growing old and dying, but could instead live forever in the eternal present. As with A Star Is Born, it’s not exactly clear if this is the movie’s perspective or just a character’s, but given that Corbet in his former life as an actor popped up in Clouds of Sils Maria as a director who expressed similar sentiments, I’m going to give into the temptation of conflating the two.

This same divide is apparent in each movie’s pop hits. As Ally shifts and evolves, her songs mutate with her: She starts off as a dramatic screamer in “Shallow,” moves to Sara Bareilles–style Lite FM when she first goes into the studio, starts working with the poor man’s Neptunes in her pop phase, then turns it all around with a big Whitney-aping ballad. Vox Lux doesn’t really do this. For a movie that’s so obsessed with period markers that it has its heroine lose her virginity the night before September 11, its Sia-penned music feels strangely out of time. Celeste comes up around the turn of the millennium, when the sound of Max Martin bubblegum ruled the charts, but her early tracks “Alive” and “Hologram” sound unmistakably like the Australian singer’s hits from a decade later. (The music video for “Hologram,” which in the movie’s telling helped the nation heal after 9/11, features a diamonds-and-Balenciaga aesthetic that feels very 2012.) I should mention two enjoyable exceptions: Soundtrack cut “Your Body Talk,” which doesn’t appear in the film, has a dramatic piano that seems to anticipate the rise of Evanescence; and “Sweat and Tears,” which we hear briefly in the concert sequence that closes the film, is a cheeky ripoff of Gwen Stefani and Avril Lavigne. But those are two songs, in a film that’s ostensibly all about music.

While Bradley Cooper clearly brought a commitment to making his movie’s landscape of fame feel real, from the efficient handlers to the starstruck cashiers, the lack of that sort of thing is what dooms Vox Lux for me — the sense that the filmmakers have only a cursory knowledge of what they’re talking about. 101-level mistakes of world-building abound. Celeste is about to release her sixth album, and she brags that she’s had “more No. 1 hits than an AK-47 standard 30-round magazine” — which would make her bigger than Rihanna, Mariah Carey, or even the Beatles, who only managed a paltry 20. If that were true, Celeste would be the biggest star of her age, her every album a massive Teenage Dream--style smash … and yet, when we get a look at it, her brand of fame seems slightly paltry. She’s taken off guard by a schlubby journalist in a junket interview, when today’s A-List stars don’t sit for a Q&A unless they’re afforded the same deference and control typically given to U.S. presidents. The outfits (Celeste walks around in what a Jezebel commenter astutely pegged as “Claire’s Boutique circa 2001” fashion), the sets (her concert backdrop is just giant flashing words like sex), it all feels very cheap.

You can chalk some of this up to the budgetary limitations of indie filmmaking, but other honkers are purely verbal. Celeste’s older sister Eleanor threatens to ruin her by revealing that she’s the one who’s actually been writing all the songs. Celeste brushes it off — no one will care. She’s right, but would Eleanor, who’s presented as her wiser, more responsible foil, really be so naïve? At lunch with her daughter, Celeste casually remarks that she actually doesn’t make that much money from touring; her biggest moneymaker is a gig voicing a character in a video game. The point is clear — artistry has been replaced by its own simulacrum — but it happens to be the exact opposite of the real issue: Performing live is now the only way that artists can reliably make big bucks, to the extent that every other revenue stream, even recording an album, must contort itself around tour dates. It’s like making a movie about John F. Kennedy and having him complain that voters don’t care about good looks and charisma.

The first time I saw Vox Lux, I walked out early. But it’d be unfair to write about it without watching the whole thing, so last week I returned, determined to make it through the musical sequence that closes the film. This closing concert is supposed to be the culmination of all Celeste’s hard sacrifices — proof that, whatever else, she “gave them a show.” The film often cuts away from her performance to show her sister and daughter, characters that have plenty cause to resent offstage Celeste, gazing at her onstage form in rapt admiration. But if this was the filmmakers trying to give Vox Lux a “Shallow” moment, it doesn’t play: The concert scene is 12 minutes of Celeste performing high-school arm choreography in a chintzy jumpsuit; Portman’s voice is auto-tuned within an inch of its life, and even thinner than it was on “Natalie Raps.” And it doesn’t quite work as an Emperor’s New Clothes moment, either, because Celeste is already so unpleasant that there’s no illusion to destroy. And this, ultimately, is the real difference between Vox Lux and A Star Is Born — one of them wants to give us a show, the other just wants to talk about it.

An aside: If you want to understand why this is an issue that seems to matter so much to people, you need to know that pop music, in 2018, is not just pop music. To be “for pop music” today is to be for art coded as feminine over masculine, for multiple shifting lenses of identity over a stifling idea of authenticity, for democracy over elitism, for the promise of the new over hidebound tradition. A film planting a flag against pop music, then, seems to be staking out ground opposed to most contemporary critical trends. Can you blame people for wanting to dig into it?
Pop Music Was 2018’s Greatest Movie Villain