Vox Lux is this year's most politically-charged pop movie (and the songs are great)

An image of Natalie Portman as Celeste
Natalie Portman as troubled pop superstar Celeste (Image credit: Curzon)

“It’s the kind of project where everybody is wondering if you’ve just totally lost your mind!” laughs Brady Corbet, speaking about his second film as director, Vox Lux. His first was 2015’s singular post-WW1 political drama The Childhood Of A Leader with Robert Pattinson. This latest effort is no less unique: a portrait of a post-Columbine America as seen through the eyes of a pop starlet whose own life is marred by tragedy. Natalie Portman plays Celeste, a been-through-it-all singer on the comeback trail. “It was so beautifully written and complicated and, of course, the chance to play a pop star was a dream,” says Portman, every bit as convincing as the glitter-clad diva here as she was a ballerina in Black Swan. The rich quality of the role is due, in part, to Celeste’s past; a survivor of a 1999 high-school shooting, her memorial song to the victims led her to become a teen pop sensation. 

“Last year there were nearly as many mass shootings as there were days in the year in America,” says Corbet, unapologetic for film’s opening with its graphic classroom massacre. “It is no longer… the pain of an individual or the pain of a community, but it is an international humanitarian crisis.” His own four-year-old daughter now endures school shooting drills, locked in a closet with her fellow pupils. “It’s madness. And it’s so perverse. It’s uncomfortable to even talk about it.”

Pop Idol

Raffey Cassidy as young Celeste

Raffey Cassidy as young Celeste (Image credit: Curzon)

As Portman puts it, Vox Lux is about “the intersection of pop culture and violence… a reflection of the moment we live in” as tragedy becomes commonplace. “When we look at today’s headlines, we can either read about yesterday’s mass shooting or we can read about one of the Kardashians getting engaged,” says Corbet. “You can choose your own adventure every day on your telephone! The way these things have somehow become equivalent… that was what the movie was supposed to be addressing.”

While Celeste’s monstrous meltdowns recall Brittany Spears and her violent experiences inevitably reminds of Ariana Grande and the 2017 attack at the Manchester Arena, Corbet is careful not to get too specific. Providing the songs was Sia, the Australian singer-songwriter who’s penned hits for Beyoncé and Rihanna. “To get to sing her music was a great luxury,” says Portman, whose husband Benjamin Millepied choreographed the film’s closing concert. 

As for the 30-year-old Corbet, he’s relieved that for such out-on-a-limb work he’s been able to call upon the likes of Portman (“I’m super-proud of her boldness”); Jude Law, who co-stars as Celeste’s manager; Willem Dafoe, who narrates; and even musical genius Scott Walker, who composed the score. “I need people to help support me with these movies,” he estimates. “They’re just too big an undertaking for an individual to take on themselves.”

Vox Lux opens in the UK on 3 May. This article first appeared in our sister publication Total Film magazine. Pick up a copy now or save up to 58% on a print and digital subscription so you never miss an issue.

Freelance writer

James Mottram is a freelance film journalist, author of books that dive deep into films like Die Hard and Tenet, and a regular guest on the Total Film podcast. You'll find his writings on GamesRadar+ and Total Film, and in newspapers and magazines from across the world like The Times, The Independent, The i, Metro, The National, Marie Claire, and MindFood.