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Pop Life: ‘A Star Is Born’ and ‘Vox Lux’ Look at What Artists Sacrifice for Their Art

There’s music in the air at the Toronto International Film Festival as Bradley Cooper’s Gaga-starring star vehicle and a new Natalie Portman movie interrogate two sides of pop music stardom

Elias Stein/Warner Bros./Neon
Spoiler alert

The Toronto International Film Festival prides itself on being both for the people and all about the glamour. Movie stars and spectators don’t quite mingle in Toronto, but the red carpet is a central attraction and ticket prices are meant to be accommodating (seats these days nevertheless start at $18). Perhaps this helps explain why two of the most anticipated films of the festival are about the difficult lives of popular artists in the spotlight. Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut, A Star Is Born, and Brady Corbet’s Vox Lux follow the rise and sort-of fall of female singers, but the messages they communicate couldn’t be more different.

Cooper (a.k.a. Brad 1) is working from the classic showbiz fairy tale already adapted for the screen three times (starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March in 1937, Judy Garland and James Mason in 1954, and Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson in 1976): A worn-out musician discovers a talented, unknown singer and helps her make a name for herself while falling in love with her. Why remake this movie again, and now? As strange as this may sound, the first film directed by the star of The Hangover series, starring himself opposite fame monster Lady Gaga, manages to make this question obsolete. A Star Is Born unifies its seemingly heterogenous ingredients by digging deep into each of them, turning their idiosyncrasies from stereotypes into human truths.

On stage, Jackson Maine (Cooper) takes pills with a G&T between two guitar riffs, leaning toward the camera to hide from his live audience, painting a clear picture for the film’s viewer. A washed-out singer, he rocks hard but struggles hard, too. Meanwhile, Ally (credited as Lady Gaga and not her birth name, Stefani Germanotta) is hitting rock bottom: In the basement of the luxury hotel where she works, she breaks up with a man by phone before being threatened by her boss into taking the trash out. Cooper brings texture to the obvious rock movie imagery: After the shot of Jack ingesting a pill, cinematographer Matthew Libatique focuses his camera on Jack’s guitar as he becomes immersed in his performance, moving in rhythm with his musicians and surfing on the wave of applause and screams coming from his fans. Without the music he loves, there wouldn’t be any need for pills.

Cooper gives his heroes highly personal issues: his sanity and his music for Jack, and her sense of self-worth for Ally. Her dissatisfaction is also very specific: What bothers Ally the most isn’t the rubbish she has to carry out, but the trash that comes out of her boss’s mouth when he talks to her. She may work underground, but Ally won’t allow anyone to make her feel smaller.

Ally’s and Jack’s lives are grounded, but Cooper doesn’t forget that their story is meant to be extraordinary, if not dreamlike. Time stops when the young woman lying on the bar of a small drag joint and singing “La Vie en Rose” looks into Jack’s wide-open eyes for the first time. This connection, like the characters’ struggles, is soon fleshed out: To help Ally remove her rings after she’s punched one of Jack’s fans, the rock star sucks on her fingers. It is a ridiculous moment for sure, but the sensuality at play is just as undeniable. Thankfully, the couple is fully aware of both the awkwardness and the tenderness of their encounter, which brings levity to what easily could have been saccharine and obvious sparks.

Cooper’s direction also has an air of self-awareness. It allows the film to skip unnecessary suspense—of course Jack will immediately call Ally to sing with him on stage—and move directly on to the meat of the story: the reality of Ally and Jack’s complicated relationship, and their music. There’s little space for glamour in A Star Is Born because glamour isn’t what this pair of artists is after. Their first performance together is filmed with careful attention to Ally’s singing and their emotions as the crowd welcomes this new talent with open arms. The songs Ally sings are superb and make for the film’s most touching and cinematic moments. By contrast, her photo shoots and late-Britney-ish SNL performance are not given much attention, because they don’t deserve it: There isn’t much to see there.

Surprisingly, A Star Is Born shows its level-headedness best in the relationship between Jack and his brother Bobby. The years of resentment, sacrifice, and miscommunication between them are only suggested until their pain comes out in direct but violent words. From Bobby and Jack’s brotherhood to Jack’s drug and alcohol addiction, Cooper chooses simplicity and honesty to address every topic, getting to his audience’s emotions through sincerity rather than brutality or manipulation.

This latter option is precisely the method chosen by Brady Corbet (Brad 2) in Vox Lux, which follows the life of a young girl who becomes a rock star after surviving a tragedy, of the kind that is way too common nowadays. From the very first sequence, Corbet pulls our strings, hard. Playing with suspense and jump-scares in a school-shooting scene is guaranteed to touch your audience, but at what cost? There is an argument that depicting the horror of current events helps make them seem real for the audience, but it’s fair to say there’s already plenty of anxiety and awareness of them among said audience. I didn’t need to feel brutalized in that way, especially in a film that prides itself on its piercing analysis of the omnipresence of violence in our society. I see no smart argument about our toxic culture being made in this sequence, only an example of this very culture’s tendency to generate shock and thrills.

This lack of confidence in his audience’s intelligence taints every aspect of Corbet’s approach. Clearly inspired by Lars von Trier, the director inserts voice-over narration by Willem Dafoe and sped-up montages of real and fictional footage to explain in words what his images themselves can’t communicate. Von Trier (most recently in Cannes shocker and TIFF absentee The House That Jack Built) has the intelligence and courage to use this easily rebarbative device to bring new and contrasting ideas into the picture. Corbet relies heavily on these tricks to bring both plot exposition and pompous gravitas to his pseudo-damning film about our modern world.

As in Cooper’s film, Corbet’s general approach to his story comes through most clearly in the relationship between two siblings. Celeste (the young Raffey Cassidy, and then the adult Natalie Portman) and her older sister, Eleanor (Stacy Martin at every age, for some reason), are very close as teenage girls, especially after Celeste survives the school shooting at 14. The two become famous with a hit-song tribute to the massacre that they compose in Celeste’s hospital room. Sixteen years later, however, they hate each other for reasons that are obvious, but always remain abstract clichés: Celeste became the big pop star, while her sister stayed by her side to help her do so. Corbet counts on stereotypes to do all the psychological suggestion. There’s nothing wrong with Portman’s neurotic performance in itself, but the inflated script doesn’t earn this switch from thoughtful teenage girl to raging has-been. Celeste seems unknowable, or perhaps Corbet himself hasn’t conceived her as a full-blown human being.

Preconceptions and buzzwords (“brand” inevitably makes an appearance) are exploited to the most embarrassing effect when Vox Lux tackles its central theme of pop culture’s brutality. In a long monologue to her bewildered daughter Albertine (also played by Cassidy), Celeste rambles on about how the whole world has low standards now and she needn’t even try to make good music anymore. It’s all about money and basic instincts these days. Coming from the woman who became a pop star on the back of a tragedy, this speech is doubly cynical. It’s also doubly obvious and facile for the audience. Like Corbet’s first film, The Childhood of a Leader, in which a tempestuous little boy who wouldn’t eat his pudding grew up to be a fictional fascist leader, Vox Lux pursues a Freudian argument without any concept of the workings of the unconscious—and perhaps even the conscious. Celeste took the spotlight from the school shooter, and now she believes, like he did, that all the public wants is violence. At no point do we understand the connection between her trauma and her now-difficult career, made up of scandals and addictions, because Corbet prefers to jump ahead in time and let us fill in the blanks with the same clichés he himself has in mind about the pleasures of popular music and entertainment.

Like your grandparents who think that the cloud is a tangible thing in the air where all your holiday pictures are stored and who warn you that violent video games create real-world assassins, Corbet has no real understanding of pop music and its appeal. To hammer his point home, he films Celeste’s glittery stadium performance without any artistry, in interminable takes and cut-aways to Albertine and Eleanor looking sad in the entranced crowd. Behind his artsy shocks to the system lies only contempt for his characters—and his audience, too. And by the time Dafoe’s narration inevitably compares Celeste to the dangerously flippant politicians of her time, the effect doesn’t even register, so worn out is this device and so beaten down is the spectator.

In A Star Is Born, Sam Elliott’s Bobby (with his deliciously deep voice) explains that just like people will use the same notes to make their own melodies, there are only a few stories out there, and they just get repeated over and over—the only difference is in how they are told. A Star Is Born and Vox Lux are on the opposite sides of the rise-and-fall musical film coin (and the corniness of Bobby’s metaphor is just another proof of it). Cooper cares about both the music and the life story and employs them to make, if not a timeless film, at least a memorable and universal one. Corbet instead investigates these simple but essential ingredients not for their own interesting complexities, but for the banalities that they sometimes carry—and it doesn’t have a nice ring to it.