Brady Corbet’s knockout of a second feature (following 2015’s The Childhood of a Leader, about the growing pains of a fascist tyrant) damn near explodes off the screen. Yes, a movie about the traumatic childhood that formed a formidable pop diva might be too much for some people. But this actor-turned-director doesn’t use Vox Lux to show off … though there is admittedly a little of that. And you should prepared to be wowed by Natalie Portman, who delivers a take-no-prisoners performance as Celeste, a swaggering rock diva who tends to burn down everything in her path, especially when she’s crossed.
Often on the verge of a nuclear meltdown, fueled by alcohol and drugs, Celeste never leans on anyone; she’s all she needs, with any leftover glimmers of vulnerability banished from her brand. Hair slicked back, her face slathered in glitter to hide the creeping darkness, this singer-songwriter is a tiny time-bomb of talent and ruthless need. You speculate about how this fame monster lost her innocence — how her star ever got born.
Which is why Vox Lux begins with our antiheroine’s wonder years. Willem Dafoe is the narrator who introduces us to the 13-year-old Celeste, played by the remarkable Raffey Cassidy (The Killing of a Sacred Deer): “In the beginning, she was kind and full of grace,” he says of this shy, Staten Island schoolgirl. Out of the blue, she finds herself badly injured during a Columbine-like school shooting, a tragic common-occurrence staple of the new century. The incident inspires her to write a musical lament — and the song, cowritten with her older sister Eleanor (Stacy Martin), surprisingly catapults her into the celebrity sphere virtually overnight. Suddenly, Celeste is being commodified by a manager (Jude Law, sleaze personified) and sold to the highest bidder. From L.A. video shoots to recording studios in Stockholm, the teenager is shoved into a world for which nothing has prepared her, especially a pregnancy that results from a one-night stand with an older Brit rocker.
Corbet and the gifted cinematographer Lol Crawley bring tremendous energy and momentum to the scenes of a young woman’s rise in a broken pop universe — she’s Madonna, Britney and Katy rolled into one confused pop princess. In a smash cut to the present, we meet Portman’s now-adult Celeste; in a nice touch, Cassidy plays the singer’s estranged, teen daughter Albertine. This hardened, jaded chanteuse exaggerates everything from her New Yawk accent to her diva demands, yet she’s still taken aback when she learns that the terrorists behind a mass shooting in Croatia were wearing masks copied from one of her best-known videos. At an ambush of a press conference, Celeste vainly tries to swat away the intrusive questions about her music being a spark to violence.
The stage is the only place she has left to belong. At the hometown, stadium concert that ends the film with the star singing rousing, electro-pop anthems (written by the “Chandelier” powerhouse Sia), Celeste carves out a safe harbor in the blinding glare of the spotlight. Striding on stage in dance routines choreographed by Portman’s husband Benjamin Millepied, this woman refuses to bear the burden of the film’s title to be a voice of light. “I don’t want people to think, I just want them to feel good,” she says. But can they? Can Celeste? Can we? Corbet asks those questions with undeniable verve and feeling. That’s what makes Vox Lux such a dynamite provocation. The film creates a universe where fame crowds out humanity. You can’t stop thinking about it.