Courtesy of Tribune News Service

Column: Examining "Vox Lux" and the plight of the modern pop star

Love it or hate it, pop music is what keeps the world turning. 

No matter how confusing or nonsensical the lyrics might be, no cares, because once a pop song hits No. 1 on the charts, it can feel like everyone on the planet is simultaneously marching to the same beat. These songs manage to cast a spell that makes us feel like we're on cloud nine and cause the operating functions in our brains to automatically switch off.

However, in "Vox Lux," actor-turned-director Brady Corbet argues that the façade of these bubbling pop gems hides the inner turmoil of the artists who sing them. 

“Vox Lux," the second feature film by Corbet, was released around the same time as Bradley Cooper's reincarnation of “A Star is Born,” another film directed by an actor-turned-director. Both films document the perils of fame and the plight of the modern pop star in two entirely different ways. Whereas one received critical acclaim and was nominated for eight Oscars, you’ve probably never even heard of the other one before reading this. 

Audiences happily flocked to see “A Star is Born” in droves, but the few who saw “Vox Lux” had a hard time accepting the film. On Rotten Tomatoes, the audience score for “Vox Lux” is rotten and sits at a measly 41% rating, whereas “A Star is Born” boasts a fresh 80% rating. Months after its release, “A Star is Born” found a home inside of Blu-ray cases on the shelves of families everywhere, but “Vox Lux” became an afterthought, something someone might start on a long plane ride and immediately turn off to take a nap instead.

After its limited release, it was as if the film was locked in a vault and someone threw away the key. However, last week the film was given another chance at life after it was quietly added to Hulu.

“Vox Lux” is a story told in two timelines and begins in 1999 at a middle school on Staten Island. Eighth grader Celeste Montgomery (Raffey Cassidy) is in class reading music sheets when a classmate barges into the room and kills her teacher and a handful of her classmates. As one of the few survivors of the tragedy, Celeste sings a song written by her older sister (Stacy Martin) at a memorial service for her peers.The nation co-opts her pain and her song “Wrapped Up” becomes an anthem of sorts, thus starting the beginning of the end for Celeste. She is quickly signed to a record label, given a sleazy manager (Jude Law), and releases her first album all at once.

Fast forward to 2017 and the accidental pop star has transformed into an unrecognizable, alcoholic diva. Donned in heavy makeup and glam rock chic, adult Celeste (Natalie Portman) is seen having mental breakdowns, fighting with her sister and daughter (Raffey Cassidy) and drunkenly lashing out at strangers in diners. Like her personal life, her public persona is also in shambles. After an uncharacteristic, racist rant fueled by drugs, she lost the public's graces years earlier and is hoping for a new start with the release of her newest album, the titular "Vox Lux." 

However, to add insult to injury, domestic terrorists recently donned masks in homage to her onstage costumes while committing a mass shooting on the day of her upcoming concert. As the day presses on, Celeste struggles to keep everything together without falling apart. Everything is riding on her performance of her greatest hits in front of a sold-out arena in the film's glitzy finale. 

The 10 original songs on the film's soundtrack were written by the Australian pop star Sia and sound like throwaway tracks from a 2008 record she never made. It’s a so-bad-it’s-good schlock featuring vocals from Portman so auto-tuned they put T-Pain to shame. Still, you can’t help but dance and sing along, and I woefully admit that I would buy tickets to the Celeste World Tour in a heartbeat. But isn’t that the point?

We put too much pressure on pop stars, and celebrities for that matter. Yes, music has the power to change the world or whatever, but pop stars are not here to solve world peace or end world hunger, yet we still hold them to those standards. In this day in age, stars such as Beyoncé  or Taylor Swift can receive more criticism than politicians do. Even after witnessing Britney Spears’ infamous 2007 breakdown, it seems like we still haven't learned our lesson, as social media has only increased the problem. 

It’s almost as if when you hit it big, much like a deal with the devil, you sign away ownership of your life to the public. You can argue this comes with the territory or that it’s literally in the job description as a public figure, but we’ve come to feel entitled to every ounce of these people just because we can memorize the lyrics to a song. Like Celeste, celebs should definitely be held accountable when they mess up, but sometimes we as a society should ask ourselves if we could have brought them to this breaking point. Like Britney, Celeste was exploited by a greedy industry from a young age, and the media only added fuel to the fire. She is by no means a monster of her own making.

As an entire project, “Vox Lux” definitely has its issues. Portman’s Staten Island accent in the film's second half essentially comes out of nowhere and the return of the actress who plays young Celeste as adult Celeste's daughter can create confusion. In addition, the graphic violence is definitely too sensitive for most audiences considering our current political climate, and that aspect of the story needed more work. Still, the film tells a much more compelling story than "A Star is Born."

"A Star is Born" is by no means a bad film, but for heaven’s sake, it's literally a remake of a remake of a remake. There isn't any risk in that nor is there anything new brought to the table. But like most mainstream pop music, it was the safest, most accessible option and featured an actual pop star in the form of Lady Gaga. 

Look at “Vox Lux” as "A Star is Born's" ugly step-sister, as she is nowhere near as popular and is a truly uncomfortable watch. Whereas audiences can root for Lady Gaga’s fresh-faced protagonist Ally, they’ll hate Portman’s larger-than-life Celeste with every fiber of their being. She’s rude, nasty and extremely volatile. Yet, the film's most enthralling scenes come from her drug-fueled temper tantrums. 

“Vox Lux” isn’t the first film starring Portman to find a home on Hulu after being panned by audiences but well-received by critics. Last year's sci-fi film “Annihilation” suffered a similar fate after a forgettable run in theaters, despite its mesmerizing visuals and existential questions. Still, even more so than “Annihilation,” “Vox Lux” has the potential to become Portman's cult classic. Even though we haven't come around to appreciating “Vox Lux" for all of its disturbing glory just yet, perhaps our children will.

That is, if global warming doesn’t take them out first.

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