“Vox Lux,” the arresting new film from Brady Corbet that opened locally this weekend, follows a fictional teen pop star, Celeste, who grows up in very real times. A school shooting in 1999, the same year as Columbine, inspires her first hit song. Soon after, the 9/11 attacks seem to push her toward a darker, more sinister sound. Later, in 2017, her music becomes linked to terrorist violence, and a now-grown Celeste turns to drugs and alcohol to cope with the pressures of stardom.
“The movie’s not about a particular person,” says Natalie Portman, who delivers a harrowing performance as the older, barely-functioning Celeste (Raffey Cassidy plays the younger character). Portman says she watched numerous rock documentaries to prepare for the role but, alas, she won’t say which ones. “I don’t want to name names,” she says, though she adds: “I mean — you can imagine.”
Like Corbet’s first film, “The Childhood of a Leader” (2015), “Vox Lux” is the biography of an invented, possibly disguised, figure. To make sure the movie kept pace with the fast-changing music world, Corbet, 30, (whose acting credits include “Mysterious Skin” and “Funny Games’) tapped several plugged-in talents. Sia, the Australian singer-songwriter-producer (“Chandelier,” “Cheap Thrills”), contributed to nearly a dozen songs for the soundtrack. The original score comes from cult musician Scott Walker, who famously walked away from stardom in the 1960s and turned to increasingly avant-garde compositions. The choreography for the film’s climactic arena show is by Portman’s husband, Benjamin Millepied, formerly of the New York City Ballet and Paris Opera Ballet.
All of which brings up a question: How did Corbet convince so many people to contribute to a movie that paints their industry in an unflattering light?
“Uh, that’s not how I pitched it,” Corbet says wryly, sitting on a sofa with Portman at a Manhattan broadcast studio on a recent afternoon. “I mean, I think that all the people that decided to be involved share a similar sentiment. It’s impossible not to share that sentiment, frankly. Because it’s true.”
For Portman, “Vox Lux” marks the latest of many roles with strong musical associations. As Sam, the love interest for Zach Braff’s Andrew Largeman in “Garden State” (2004), Portman introduced a generation to the indie-rock darlings the Shins by promising they would “change your life, I swear.” As a troubled ballerina dancing feverishly to Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake,” in Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan” (2010), Portman won the Oscar for best actress. Last year, she starred in Terrence Malick’s “Song to Song” as the wife of a record producer (Michael Fassbender).
Portman, 37, describes her own musical tastes as fairly standard for her demographic. As a preteen, she says, “I was listening to a lot of pop, like Tiffany and Debbie Gibson. I was a total '80s kid.” As adolescence dawned, “I was listening to a lot of ‘girls with feelings,’ ” she says. “Fiona Apple and Juliana Hatfield.”
“Pretty good artists,” Corbet chimes in.
“Great artists,” Portman says. “That’s when I connected music with emotion and expression.”
Much of the film takes place in glamorous New York City, but it’s often played by Long Island. That means Portman found herself returning to her old stamping grounds while shooting earlier this year. The Inn at Fox Hollow, a hotel in Woodbury not far from her hometown of Jericho (and her Syosset High School alma mater), served as home base for the crew while shooting several dance numbers at a nearby soundstage. “I had been to many bar mitzvahs there,” Portman says.
What’s more, the swanky Garden City Hotel stood in for a Manhattan hotel where Celeste begins a day of emotional upheaval and hard partying with her manager (Jude Law). “I’d also been there for bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs,” Portman says, laughing. “The doorman there was like, ‘Oh, my God, I remember you from being 13 years old.’ It was really sweet.”
Initially released Dec. 7, “Vox Lux” has drawn mostly favorable but also polarized reviews. Some critics have objected to the film’s bloody opening sequence — the Columbine-like shooting — and raised questions about what, exactly, the film is trying to say. Is Corbet connecting popular music with tragedy? Maybe even with evil?
“The film is a fable. It talks about that which is popular as being a potentially destructive force,” Corbet says. “But no, I don't think that popular music is evil. I don't think popular movies are evil, I don't think capitalism is evil. But I think it's exploited for evil all the time. And I suppose that's what I was examining.”