TIFF Review: ‘Vox Lux’ is a musical mess

Editor’s Note: Vanyaland’s Nick Johnston is north of the border all week long for the Toronto International Film Festival; click here for our continued coverage from the fest and also check out our official preview.

Brady Corbet’s Vox Lux boasts a cast and crew that commands attention. You have talented actors like Natalie Portman, Jude Law, and Jennifer Ehle in front of the camera and the ghostly voice of Willem Dafoe providing narration, and, a must for a modern musical, you have the talents of two incredible songwriters working on the score, provided with Old Hollywood gloss by Scott fuckin’ Walker, and soundtrack, with its original songs by Sia.

But goddamn if Vox Lux isn’t just the silliest thing, full of ponderous musings about the dueling natures of tragedy and celebrity, all wrapped up in a thematic package that’s so miscalculated and full of itself that it frequently boggles the mind. It’s a truly audacious and bizarre work, and I’d probably be super proud and glad that it exists if it weren’t such a fucking slog to watch.

Divided into four parts — a prologue, two acts and an epilogue — Corbet attempts to portray the origins of a Sia-like pop star with an epic grandiosity. In 2000, Celeste (Raffey Cassidy), a normal teenage girl from Staten Island, has her life entirely altered by a school shooting in which a classmate of hers murders dozens of her fellow student and nearly kills her as well. In the aftermath of the tragedy, she begins to compose music as a way of healing her soul as her body goes through physical therapy, and it’s when she performs one of these songs at a candlelight vigil for the victims that she gets noticed by a high-powered manager (Law), and she manages to get a record deal from a shady executive (Ehle) who transforms her into a bubblegum pop star (who makes oddly modern music for that period of time). The record is a massive success, and she descends into drug addiction and cheap, shitty love with an indie rocker in its aftermath.

We leave the young Celeste as she’s recording her first major music video, which features her in a glittery make-up behind a disco ball-masked figure on a motorcycle, and pick up with her 16 years later, where the elder Celeste (Portman) has blossomed into a Bieber-like figure, hiding from paparazzi scrutiny and the press, as she attempts to make a comeback, headed off by a show in her hometown in support of her new record (the film’s title), to compensate for some of her bad behavior over the years. It’s at a press day at a hotel in NYC that she finds out that a group of terrorists have committed a mass shooting on a Croatian beach wearing outfits very similar to the ones that the man on the motorcycle wore in her music video. She’s understandably upset about this, and lashes out at people.

Over the course of that fateful day, she fights with her sister (Stacy Martin), does a bunch of blow with her manager, makes her daughter (Cassidy again) take a pregnancy test when she finds out that she’s sexually active, and performs a concert that will, at least according to Dafoe, change the course of human history. Her band isn’t named Wyld Stallions, so I doubt him there.

A lot of the blame here can be placed solely on Portman’s utterly campy performance, which might work in its own little film, provided that it were a comedy, but with Corbet’s high-minded theses about the nature of pop and healing after a national tragedy, it is so atonal and misjudged that it drives the film right into comedy. The rest of the cast doesn’t fare much better, either joining Portman on the broad-and-wild express (Law) or underplaying things so severely that they hardly register (Cassidy). The one element that does work is Dafoe: His narration is omniscient and feels plucked from the future of Corbet’s world, and he speaks eloquently about her emotions: If you’re planning to hire a narrator to fill in the gaps of your narrative, there’s probably only one better choice for the part: Morgan Freeman.

Corbet has a strong visual style, best demonstrated in the prologue, which features at least three utterly haunting shots that have stuck with me in the intervening hours since my viewing, but that quickly evaporates when he’s not totally able to control his frame. This means that every time there’s anything involving elaborate dance choreography, his polished style devolves into rough cuts and belly flops, which makes Sia’s already-underwhelming input feel even worse. The pop star, who also serves as an executive producer on the project, did not bring her best for Corbet to work with, and her songs here are about as bland as one might imagine.

You can feel her influence on the film’s visual style, at least, in the costuming which is interesting enough to merit enough its own consideration, though it pales in comparison to anything an actual singer might wear in this day-and-age post Kermit or Meat dress. I will say that Corbets thesis about the connections between violence and its radiating effects throughout culture are interesting and potent, but they’re buried under a layer of thick, silly grime.

The film I kept thinking about while watching Vox Lux was Richard Kelly’s inimitable Southland Tales, which had about as many vulgarities thrown at it when it premiered at Cannes as I’ve tossed towards Corbet in the course of writing this review. It too is a broad and ambitious work, one not afraid to look silly and pretentious, and though Kelly’s work was always fun and entertaining in a way that this isn’t, I’m curious if Vox Lux is the kind of film that might look better with some distance from the present moment.

The things that I chuckled uncharitably at — Dafoe’s lines about Celeste losing her innocence on September 11, at the exact same time that our nation did, being high up there — might hold a weird potency in a couple of years once our new national nightmare is over. But for now, my first instinct, that it’s a badly written and acted film so convinced of its own importance that it can’t see the rakes that it’s constantly stepping on, feels like the right one.

Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus. Featured image courtesy of TIFF.