A consideration of pop music and terrorism by rising filmmaker Brady Corbet, “Vox Lux” is a tonally shaky wild ride too uneven to qualify as an indie dazzler but too ambitious and original to ignore.
Corbet, an actor (“Simon Killer”) and writer-director (“The Childhood of a Leader”) drawn to intense material, parallels a personal trauma with that of a grieving nation in this drama that opens in New York City in the year of Columbine. He explores these and other issues through the experiences of a pop star named Celeste.
“In the beginning, she was kind and full of grace,” says the voice of Willem Dafoe, supplying omniscient narration. He’s describing 13-year-old, angelically named Celeste (Raffey Cassidy), who survives a school shooting in Corbet’s 1999-set opening passage.
At the memorial service, Celeste sings a song she wrote with her older sister, Eleanor (Stacy Martin). The televised performance touches hearts nationwide, and a recording contract follows.
Accompanied by Eleanor and a jaded manager (Jude Law), Celeste travels to Sweden and becomes a dance-pop star. She loses her virginity to a British rocker. His music, she tells him, is of the style that the “boy who attacked me” listened to. Later, images of 9/11 further Celeste’s, and the country’s, loss of innocence.
Later, Natalie Portman assumes the role of Celeste, who is now a 31-year-old mess with an exaggerated Staten Island accent. Having derailed her career with substances and scandal, she is staging a comeback. She also wants to reconnect with her teenage daughter, Albertine (also played by Cassidy).
Again, Celeste and terrorism cross paths: Terrorists have attacked a Croatian beach, wearing masks copied from those in one of Celeste’s music videos.
Corbet weaves themes from both life and fiction into the story: the pervasiveness of violence in young people’s lives; the equating of fame with worthiness; a Faustian bargain.
Using everything from slow motion to rock-concert flash and historical material referencing African-American jazz, Corbet’s movie abounds with ideas and ambition. Not all elements prove effective.
The characters are barely developed beyond colorful surfaces. Portman, operating on Corbet’s wavelength, throws killer tantrums, but such rants, without deeper substance, grow tiresome.
A climactic concert (songs are by electro-pop artist Sia) features singing and dancing that, beneath the spectacle, are artificial and detached.
Also, silver-sequined Celeste — unlike Lady Gaga’s Ally in “A Star Is Born,” who also made moral compromises to achieve superstardom — doesn’t convince us she ever possessed much talent.
Law’s character, too, is underdeveloped, as is a publicist played by Jennifer Ehle.
Two and a half stars
Starring: Natalie Portman, Raffey Cassidy, Jude Law, Stacy Martin
Written and directed by: Brady Corbet
Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes