Young music stars can be “crucified” in the media as they burn out from the demands of their career, says the director of a new film about a troubled pop singer.
Vox Lux, directed by Brady Corbet, stars Natalie Portman as Celeste, a global celebrity and icon on the verge of a breakdown.
Rising British star Raffey Cassidy plays the young Celeste, who is “discovered” in 1999 after getting caught up in a high school shooting.
Portman plays the older Celeste in scenes that show her mounting a comeback after a scandal that has derailed her career.
Corbet, whose previous film, The Childhood of a Leader, starred Robert Pattinson, says Vox Lux is “about the crossing point of fame and infamy and how they have increasingly become one and the same.”
The 30-year-old, who started out as an actor in such films as Thunderbirds and Thirteen, believes the life of a music star is more “extreme” than one lived in the film industry.
“As a musician, you have to be on the road 200 days of the year for the economics to make sense. It’s hard once you are on the wheel to get off it.
“When you get run into the ground, and you are going to get run into the ground, there’s a lot of folk who seem to enjoy crucifying these often young people. They are suffering and people seem to think it’s hilarious.”
Stacy Martin, who plays Celeste’s sister, cites Amy Winehouse and Britney Spears as examples of pop stars who have publicly gone off the rails.
“There was such a high demand to know about them when they were famous [that] when it came to their downfall people also wanted to see it,” she says. “Their downfall was part of their fame.”
The recent success of A Star Is Born and Bohemian Rhapsody has prompted renewed interest in Hollywood’s portrayals of the music industry.
Elton John biopic Rocketman, to be released later this month, will also chronicle the highs and the lows of life in the limelight.
Speaking at last year’s Venice Film Festival, Portman said the pressure is worse for music stars than it is for those in her position.
“They have a different eco system around them,” she told reporters. “If you’re in music you have effectively a work family, and that can become very corrupted. It’s a mix of love and commerce.
“Films are different. They’re project-based, and you’re not spending a year on a bus or a private plane [like] a very famous pop star.”
Portman said Corbet’s script is “a perfect reflection of the society we’re in. It shows the intersection of pop culture and violence and the spectacle we equate between the two.”
The actress does not consider Vox Lux to be a “message film”, but hopes it “makes people feel things they’ve recognised and we’re facing right now.”
At one point in the film, the grown-up Celeste is asked to comment on a terrorist attack that bears a tenuous link to her on-stage performances.
She is expected to give a slick sound-bite but finds herself out of her depth – a situation Corbet sees mirrored in real life.
“What’s crazy is the way the public and even some journos come down on something some poor young person said,” he sighs. “They misspoke, or they are not eloquent, or what they said was dumb.
“Why do we expect so much of celebrities? They are not our political representatives. If you make music or films you don’t ask to be asked those types of questions.
“Recently everyone was debating Taylor Swift, and where she stands politically, and I thought it was so strange anyone would care. I find the whole cycle a little bit toxic.”
Social media has increased potential pressure on artists, he goes on. “If you are an artist who chooses not to have a social media presence, it starts to damage your career.
“Young people and seasoned veterans are asked to take photos in the make-up chair and wink in a Boomerang – it’s insane.”
(Boomerang is an Instagram app that combines photos to make short videos that play backwards and forwards in a loop.)
“It diminishes the allure of why we go to the movies or go to a pop concert,” Corbett continues. “Now we really understand the mechanics of it.”
Though we see Celeste throw an epic pop-star tantrum in Vox Lux, Corbet insists the character was not based on a real-life famous person.
“Celeste is an amalgamation, both real and fictitious,” says the director, who enlisted Australian songwriter and producer Sia to write the music Portman’s character performs.
The film’s score was written by the late Scott Walker, who also wrote the score for The Childhood of a Leader.
“In the first half of the film I wanted to recognise Celeste’s humanities,” Corbet continues. “Then they slowly erode so they become exaggerated and absurd.
“I wrote that by the end, the character is wearing such large shoulder pads in her costume she can barely fit through the door.”
His film, he concludes, “starts off as a drama and turns into a comedy of excess” about a woman who is “as much a victim of her era as a leader of her era.”
Vox Lux is in UK cinemas and on demand now.