For a brief, surreal moment early in last year’s Oscar season, it looked as though the Best Actress category could come down to a duel between two different versions of Lady Gaga. The first, of course, was Gaga herself, playing the semiautobiographical role of striving waitress turned pop star Ally in Bradley Cooper’s sweeping remake of A Star Is Born. The other was Oscar winner and sometime rapper Natalie Portman, portraying what looked to be a kind of millennial Bowie in another actor turned director’s rock-star flick, Brady Corbet’s Vox Lux. The visually striking Vox Lux trailer dropped in late October, smack in the middle of A Star Is Born’s lucrative box office run, and it was all too easy to draw the comparison: “Natalie Portman gives Lady Gaga a run for her money as an extravagant pop star,” went the Oscar-prognostication website Gold Derby’s headline about the teaser. After festival season and ahead of its late-year release, Vox Lux had an award-season simmer; Portman even promoted the film on the coveted December issue of Vanity Fair, in a story that described the role as “Portman’s fourth campaign for an Oscar.”
If you attended the Toronto International Film Festival last fall, A Star Is Born and Vox Lux weren’t even the only movies you could catch in which a recognizable actress transformed into a fictitious celluloid pop star. Also premiering at the 2018 TIFF was Max Minghella’s directorial debut, Teen Spirit, an American Idol–era Cinderella story that cast Elle Fanning as a Polish farm girl who lands a spot on a televised singing competition. (Minghella, 33, plays Nick on The Handmaid’s Tale and is the son of the late director Anthony Minghella.) There was also Her Smell, the gritty third collaboration between indie auteur Alex Ross Perry and Elisabeth Moss, who tackles the role of a Courtney Love–esque grunge goddess/drug addict named Becky Something. (Teen Spirit and Her Smell both open this week in limited release.)
These movies all premiered in what, for better or worse, will be at least partially remembered as the Year of Bohemian Rhapsody, when the troubled-yet-Teflon Queen biopic made a mint at the box office and secured Rami Malek a Best Actor Oscar for playing real-life rock god Freddie Mercury. But these four movies about female superstars all eschew the biopic treatment for more imaginative pop-cultural world-building, delighting in the creation of alternative-universe chart toppers like Vox Lux’s glam-butch heartthrob Celeste (Portman plays her with a foul mouth and a thick, Staten Island accent) or, in Her Smell, Amber Heard’s high-fashion grrrl idol Zelda E. Zekiel, who walks around clad in an outfit that is half–Ziggy Stardust, half-“Formation” video. Biopics can often feel staid and predictable—rock biopics doubly so compared to the unruly energy of their source material. Perhaps these fictionalized reveries are more fitting. For what is pop music if not a direct appeal to escapism, fantasy, and imagination?
Still, each of these movies offers its own critique of the pop-music-industrial complex, and some of them are downright lacerating. In Teen Spirit, a slick music-industry executive (played, with relish, by a scene-stealing Rebecca Hall) offers the professionally naive 17-year-old Violet Valenski a record contract—we all know what that means. The animating question of the movie comes from whether or not she’ll sign it and abandon her scrappy but lovable hometown manager, and along with him (we assume, because we’ve seen this movie before) her artistic integrity. In A Star Is Born, Cooper’s grizzled crooner Jackson Maine all but disowns his new bride Ally for “going pop” and taking the easy sellout route to success. In one of the movie’s most harrowing scenes, he drunkenly mocks the supposedly vapid lyrics of her solo hit: “Why’d you come around me with an ass like that?” Her Smell depicts Becky’s inner circle as a coterie of enablers and financially dependent hangers-on, content to endure her bad behavior so long as the trendy alt-rock commodification of it remains their meal ticket.
The most caustic vision of all, though, belongs to Vox Lux, in which Corbet’s depiction of music industry exploitation is almost parodically bleak. Celeste first becomes famous when she pens a song about surviving a school shooting, and she eventually transforms her suffering into both a marketable brand and a lucrative but soulless career. We learn at the end of the film, in a narrator’s voice-over, that she may have made something even more nefarious than a record deal: “Shortly after her classmate pulled the trigger and sent her to the place between life and death … she had met the devil and made a deal with him in exchange for her life. He whispered her melodies, and she returned with a mission to bring great change to the next century.” (So that’s why I can’t get the ass song out of my head. Damn you, Lucifer!)
For all the biblical ire these movies direct toward the original sin of stardom, though, it’s ironic that they still must rely upon it to sell tickets. Isn’t the reason you see a movie like Vox Lux or Her Smell to take in the novel spectacle of Natalie Portman or Elisabeth Moss playing a rock star? These movies are being advertised not so much as crowd-pleasing rock operas but instead as meta-Method feats. We are told that Elle Fanning “is reported to have done all her own singing live and not had it Auto-Tuned in post,” while Rolling Stone premiered the film’s promotional music video of Fanning doing a passable if karaoke-grade cover of Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own.” Portman and Moss, too, do their own singing in their respective films, and while neither is a virtuoso, they’re playing within genres (digitized, faceless pop; hot-mess punk) that don’t exactly require them to be. Still, as audience members, we are invited to stand in awe not so much of the music but the actress’s commitment to the role. “They seem not so much as vehicles for their ferocious lead performances as awed reactions to them,” wrote Variety critic Owen Gleiberman, comparing Vox Lux and Her Smell. “It’s almost as if the films were channeling the wild forces at the center, astounded at the spectacle of these divas from hell seizing the spotlight. And it’s as if the filmmakers … felt as if it was mostly their job to stand back and gawk.”
Given the surface similarities between these movies, it’s tempting to say that the prestige pop star movie is “having a moment.” But aside from A Star Is Born and the outlier biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, is it really? Just because they’re being made doesn’t mean they’re finding audiences, or even enough critical success to separate them from the pack. Lady Gaga did snag her first acting Oscar nomination, of course, but the uncompromising and abrasive Vox Lux evaporated from the award-season conversation on arrival, and it grossed just $727,000 at the domestic box office. Are we really living through a rock-movie renaissance? Or are the chords these films strike too dissonant to resonate?
Shortly after working with Moss on the masterfully unnerving 2015 indie Queen of Earth, 34-year-old filmmaker Perry began writing a new script with the actress in mind. It would be a welcome departure for Moss, who was still best known as the plucky Peggy Olson: She was to play a self-destructive punk singer grappling with both addiction and new motherhood. “I kept seeing Elisabeth on stage as the lead singer of a fictional ’90s all-girl punk band,” Perry has said of his initial idea. Then in the summer of 2016, while writing the script that would become Her Smell, he had two revelatory artistic experiences. One was attending several Shakespearean productions in New York, specifically of Hamlet and The Merchant of Venice. The other was only slightly different: catching the long-awaited reunion tour of one of his all-time favorite bands, Guns N’ Roses.
Moss has recalled that when Perry first pitched her the idea he was thinking small and intimate: “I’m going to write this movie and it’s mainly going to be you in a hotel room.” Then, she said, “I got the script months later and it was this five-act structure with two bands spanning many years with a gigantic cast.” The odd, personal vision board of “Elizabethan Appetite for Destruction” got Perry thinking bigger. “I can’t point to any movie, recent or otherwise, that combines the two things I wanted to explore in Her Smell: lowbrow popular music and highbrow theatrical productions going back to Shakespeare’s five-act tragedies,” he explains in the movie’s press notes. “I was interested in those grand suites featuring long sequences with an intermission and breaking point. I wanted to elevate those messy, glittering rock stars like Slash and Axl to the level of the grandiose, tragic characters I was encountering on stage.”
Pop spectacle in a high-art frame: It’s reminiscent of Corbet’s approach in Vox Lux. The 30-year-old actor turned director’s second feature juxtaposes the gauche mass entertainment of Celeste’s music (written by the prolific and almost mathematically efficient hitmaker Sia) with darker and more self-consciously highbrow flourishes like a menacing score from the late Scott Walker, bursts of cold, Michael Haneke–esque violence, and detached voice-over from Willem Dafoe, who narrates the whole tale in comically highfalutin language. He places Celeste within a historical context, looking down on her from an omniscient God’s-eye view. “Celeste was born in America in 1986,” he tells us in the beginning. “Considering her parents’ background, education, and socioeconomic status, being somewhat on the losing side of Reaganomics, the name of Latin origin seemed an especially poetic choice. It carved her out some predetermined destination, a route which to travel by.”
That last sentence is grammatically incorrect (you could still sound sufficiently highfalutin by saying “a road by which to travel”), which feels like a microcosm of every single problem I have with Vox Lux (which is impressive, because I have a lot of them). Is the narrator supposed to sound bombastic on purpose, and wanting me, the Intelligent Viewer, to laugh at him? Is the joke that my idiot brain is too fried from the devil’s pop music to even notice? Or is Corbet dead serious and didn’t realize you can just say “a road by which to travel”? I don’t want to believe the latter two possibilities are true, but there’s plenty in this movie that suggests how superior it feels to its own source material. Vox Lux has a disregard for the basic terms of pop-cultural history that got under my skin. Again, Sia wrote Celeste’s tracks, the biggest hits of which come in the film’s first half, set in 1999 or 2000. But the sort of music that would have launched a shy teen into global superstardom in 1999 or 2000 … did not sound like circa-2016 Sia B-sides, encrusted in goth glamour and hard-edged, On the Run Tour masks. This was the era of Jive Records teenybopper R&B and Britney’s scandalous midriff. Celeste would not have made this song. Of course Vox Lux is creating an alternate universe and a fictional pop world, but pretty much everything else that happens (from 9/11 to the existence of camera phones) plays by the rules of reality. Its lack of attention to musical details (not to mention the harsh, almost Brechtian way Corbet shoots and mics Celeste’s final performance) makes the whole thing feel not only antagonistic to its own interests but, by extension, its audience. (I saw the movie with a colleague and when it was over he compared the experience to “drinking poison.”)
Her Smell doesn’t feel quite so patronizing, but it also fails to justify the gaping self-conscious gap between its “lowbrow” content and heightened theatrical form—for if there’s anything more grating than listening to a junkie pontificate for 135 minutes, it’s listening to a junkie who believes herself to be in a Shakespearean tragedy pontificate for 135 minutes. The movie doth protest too much, methinks.
I’m glad Her Smell isn’t a trendy empowerment fable and that Perry allows Moss to dig for some truly grotesque emotions, but something about the movie’s gender politics feels empty and underobserved. Aside from general observations about the difficulties of motherhood and marriage, there’s no exploration of the systemic sexism a band at that time would have faced—you can’t graft the Guns N’ Roses story onto the arc of a girl band in the ’90s and expect it to take. Something about the Aker Girls (Cara Delevingne on drums; Kathy Acker on conspicuously researched cultural reference), the younger girl band that looks up to Becky’s Something She, feels off, too. They dress, act, and sound more like an indie band of today than one that would have existed and become popular in the early aughts—a dead zone for countercultural feminism and certainly not a time when their sort of band would find the type of overnight success the movie asks us to believe in.
While these movies’ aesthetics announce themselves as new, challenging, or provocative, the stories they’re telling ultimately feel conventional and familiar. The self-destructive and ultimately repentant superstar or, worse, the hack who signs a musical deal with the devil are classic-radio hits we’ve heard over and over again. But these movies are so high-minded and self-serious about their insights that they risk becoming silly, tedious, or, worse, antagonistic toward the viewer—and, least forgivably, the music itself.
In Sara Marcus’s excellent riot grrrl history Girls to the Front—incidentally, one of the books Perry had Moss read while she was creating the character Becky Something—Bikini Kill member Tobi Vail recalls a night early in the group’s existence, when her new bandmates slept over at her parents’ house and she showed them one of her all-time favorite movies on laser disc. (The ’90s!) The film was Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains, a cult 1982 flick about a sneering punk-rock girl band starring a teenage Diane Lane and a pre-everything Laura Dern. It was frontwoman Kathleen Hanna’s first time seeing the movie, and for years to come she’d cite it as a galvanizing influence. “I remember lying on the floor, watching The Fabulous Stains,” she told Marcus, “and feeling like this was exactly the most perfect moment, watching that movie, being in a band with them, the whole thing.”
By most standards, Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains isn’t a great movie. It’s certainly not the kind of movie that wins Oscars: It’s a little crudely made, unevenly acted, and at times even “problematic” in the modern parlance. But it is a great rock movie, an altogether different beast—it’s alive. A great rock movie doesn’t have to win awards but should capture something about the underlying spirit of the music that animates it. It asks you to bask in its soundtrack rather than have critical distance or even contempt for it. A great rock movie is the sort of thing that, if you’re watching it late at night with some friends, speaks to you directly and viscerally enough to give you all sorts of crazy ideas, like maybe you guys could start a band. Even if the feeling is fleeting, it hypnotizes you into thinking that anything’s possible.
Something that The Fabulous Stains gets right that so many of these more recent rock movies gets wrong is that it takes the fans seriously enough to be characters, too. Diane Lane’s disgruntled young punk singer Corinne becomes famous for mouthing off about female teen angst, but—in striking, iconic shots of the devoted “Skunks” who come to her shows dressed just like her—her message is validated because we see the young people with whom it’s resonating. (Unfortunately we never get anything close to this in Vox Lux or Her Smell, perhaps because these films are singularly focused on their lead actresses.) “I’m perfect!” the 17-year-old Corinne shouts to an adoring audience in one of the movie’s many quotable lines. “But nobody in this shithole gets me, because I don’t put out!” She’s not perfect, of course, but it’s easy to see why so many girls are in thrall to her.
Another movie that looms large over these recent rock flicks is Velvet Goldmine, Todd Haynes’s 1998 love letter to glam rock. Like The Fabulous Stains, it wasn’t a huge hit when it was first released (though few Google image searches have aged as magnificently as “velvet goldmine red carpet 1998”) but has since found a second life as a fervently beloved cult classic. And even more profoundly than Stains, it’s about the strange, magical, and deeply intimate power of musical fandom—maybe the best one anybody’s ever made. Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Ewan McGregor star as Bowie and Iggy Pop look-alikes (Brian Slade and Curt Wild, respectively) but just as crucial to the story is Christian Bale’s character of Arthur, a glam fan who grows up to be a journalist and, in Haynes’s lyrical flashbacks, reflects on the formative influence glam rock had on his sexuality and sense of self. It’s a dreamy, thoughtful, elegiac movie that’s still not above the pleasure of spectacle. Velvet Goldmine is the movie that launched a thousand Eno phases. It’s not about David Bowie, but it’s the movie I invited everybody over to watch the week Bowie died, because I think in its oblique and sneaky way it’s the one that got him the most right.
Maybe the key to a great rock movie is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. As I was thinking about my more obscure personal favorites (Gillian Armstrong’s loopy ’80s new-wave musical Starstruck; Aki Kaurismaki’s stranger-in-a-strange-land postcard Leningrad Cowboys Go America) and the most rightfully beloved (the endlessly replayable That Thing You Do!, the ur-text This Is Spinal Tap), I realized that most of them are comedies. I’m not sure I’ll watch Vox Lux again, but I’ve watched Natalie Portman’s SNL digital short three times while writing this. Does rewatchability have something to do with it? A great pop song, after all, is something you want to play over and over again.
Of this new wave of rock movies, the one that comes closest to getting music, performance, and fandom right is A Star Is Born. I was put off by its depiction of the pop world the first time I saw it; like Celeste singing 2019 pop hits in a pre-9/11 world, something about the details of Ally’s career felt inauthentic. But as the movie has wormed its way into pop culture (and as I’ve been compelled to keep revisiting it), it’s become clearer that, even though Cooper is the director, the movie is not forcing us to look at the world through his character’s lens. There’s enough space for the viewer and listener to have her own responses, reactions, and critical opinions. And one that quite a few people have come to, independently of Jackson Maine or even Cooper, is that the ass song is pretty good.
“No, it’s not the intention,” songwriter Diane Warren said, when New York Times reporter Kyle Buchanan asked her to weigh in on the most burning question in the Star Is Born cinematic universe: Were Ally’s pop songs supposed to be bad? “This was a fun song, and I love fun pop songs,” she went on. “Not everything has to be serious all the time.” Music can be as slippery and tricky as anything, existing somewhere outside dichotomies like highbrow and lowbrow, creator and listener, terror and joy. What she said next was creepier than anything in Vox Lux, because it was so ordinary and true: “A guilty pleasure, right? But it has its revenge because it sticks in your brain.”