Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
If you felt A STAR IS BORN lacked a stinging commentary of our pop music landscape, writer-director Brady Corbet has a movie for you. In VOX LUX, he connects the manipulated machinations of pop music with provocative socio-political commentary set against a historical backdrop. It’s also a fireworks-laden showcase for star Natalie Portman to deliver a magnificent, cutting performance. Simply put: it’s an ambitious film, backed up by a talented cast and crew.
Beloved pop music icon Celeste (Natalie Portman) has lived a life plagued by trauma – some beyond her control and some self-inflicted. And when the singer returns to her hometown to play a gig after a long hiatus, she’s forced to deal with the ghosts of her past that continue to inform her present.
At the film’s AFI Fest Q&A moderated by associate director of programming Lane Kneedler, Portman said that she valued collaborating with Corbet to build her brash, bold character from the ground up.
Brady wrote such a specific character that felt so rounded and such like a real human being with very dark sides. Sometimes she’s really authentic and sometimes she’s totally fake and sometimes she’s cruel and sometimes she’s gentle and sometimes she’s performing and sometimes she’s being.
To further prepare, Portman also watched real pop stars’ documentaries to be able to aid in…
…going from having a baby to being able to do squats in stilettos.
While Portman was busy getting herself into physical and psychological shape to play a pop superstar, Corbet had to find an actual superstar to provide the sensational soundtrack of hit songs. He explained,
I realized [early on] it was going to be problematic to have nine original pop songs in the movie. Most of these people who make pop music are these pop factories who get paid a lot of money and we didn’t have a lot of money. We couldn’t have 35 partners – we needed one. The list was really short with artists that actually write their own pop songs that were also really good.
I thought it would be too easy to make a mockery of these songs if they weren’t good. The movie wouldn’t be particularly compelling or difficult. You wouldn’t be wrestling with it if it was just all total crap. Even though the costumes are so garish, these songs are really exciting pop songs. There’s like hits on this soundtrack.
At the top of that list was Sia Furler, whose music career has landed her a laundry list of chart-toppers for herself as well as other singers. Corbet further elucidated,
I wrote Sia and she kindly opened up her library to us – stuff she had written a long, long time ago – that she had produced around the time parts of the movie took place. It was a process of mixing and matching lyrics and chorus and verses to make a soundtrack. Everything had to be re-recorded, re-produced by a few people: Greg Kurstin and the vocal producer Christopher Braide, who recorded all the songs and did the vocal coaching.
Portman was suitably impressed she was given Sia’s unreleased songs to work with.
It was incredible when I received the script to have the Sia song with it. I remember getting an e-mail with these attachments of the songs, and she sings them on the demos herself. So, of course, they’re gorgeous – just beautiful, beautiful songs and really great pop songs. I knew that it was realistic, because if you read a script and then it says, “And then she writes a hit pop song” and we don’t see the song, you’re like, “Okay, good luck getting that.” It was clear from the beginning that it had this incredible music. They’re the real artists.
Corbet mentioned that not just one, but two soundtrack releases are planned.
There’s going to be Scott Walker’s score and then there will be the pop songs. We’ll figure out how to meet in the middle, like on Spotify or something.
When it came time to put all those catchy tunes to use, Portman brought in her husband, dancer/ filmmaker Benjamin Millepied, to choreograph Celeste’s hometown concert – the setting for VOX LUX’s big finale.
Physically, it was a lot of preparation. I worked with [movement coach] Raquel [Horesford]. I worked with my husband on the choreography for about a month. I actually prepped the film twice because the night before I think I was actually on my way to the airport the first time and they were like, “Turn home, the financing fell apart.” We were literally about to shoot and the financing fell through and the movie was cancelled. I had prepped everything so when everything got pulled back together again it was a few months later, so I had to kind of start over again, even though it was relatively recent in my memory.
This financial woe wound up being somewhat of a blessing in disguise, said Portman.
That was kind of nice, because it actually gave a longer time to prep and a longer time to sit in my head and my body. Physically, that was dance training, physical training just to have the endurance to do a show like that.
Portman also had to keep track of Celeste’s mental state, which, at this point in the film, she’s had a drug-fueled meltdown in her dressing room minutes prior to her appearance on stage. She had to consult with Corbet on how he wanted that to manifest during the character’s concert performance.
Emotionally, I kept asking Brady should I be kind of off. She’s obviously had this massive breakdown right before. She’s obviously had this drug experience and he was like no. She’s out of it, down and back up and she’s a professional. She’s done this a million times and she can operate even a little bit messed up. Maybe not the peak but can handle it to the point where her audience isn’t aware that she was having a drug fueled meltdown minutes earlier. That was really informative in terms of the headspace of just being able to enter, that she could kind of enter a space and leave everything behind her that just happened, that she can go in anew which was an interesting kind of key to the character too. A certain kind of erasure must have to happen.
They were also under a time crunch to shoot the intense, elaborate concert.
Logistically, we had a day and a half to shoot it. And the first day shooting was the drug meltdown. It was like, “And go.” Brady shot this entire movie in 22 days. I shot in 10 days.
Similar to Celeste’s homecoming, Portman too felt welcomed back into her childhood neighborhood.
They opened a studio right around the corner from my house where I grew up and like right around the corner from my school where I grew up so it was legitimately like a homecoming kind of feeling. And we stayed at this hotel that, I forget what it’s called, but it’s something fantasy sounding like The Babylon Inn or something. It was like where I went to every Bar Mitzvah growing up. The guy at the door was like, “I remember you from when you were in your Bar Mitzvah dress.” I was like, “Oh God.” It was a real return to my roots kind of feeling. Very easy to go into my accent because it’s where I grew up.
VOX LUX opens in limited release in NY and LA on December 7, expanding nationwide December 14. Columbia Records and Three Six Zero Recordings will release the original motion picture soundtrack (Featuring Sia and composer Scott Walker) on December 14. Read Cole’s review here.