Bradley Cooper’s A Star is Born and Brady Corbet’s Vox Lux tell the story of two musicians’ rise to fame. Although very different in narrative structure, the two films presented at the Venice Film Festival explore the same themes.
The 75° Venice Film Festival has come to an end, and what a festival it has been! This was the year of the genre hybrid movies, from the Coen Brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs to Jacques Audiard’s The Sisters Brothers. It was also the year of important journeys, whether in time (with Mike Leigh’s Peterloo and Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite) or – quite literally! – in space, with Damien Chazelle’s First Man. From doctors with questionable medical approaches (Rick Alverson’s The Mountain) and terrifying cult leaders (Mary Harron’s Charlie Says) to creative subjects such as art (Julian Schnabel’s Van Gogh biopic At Eternity’s Gate) and dance (Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria) the Biennale’s programme really had it all. And, with Lady Gaga herself making an appearance, it should come as no surprise that music was a very important element of this year’s festival too.
Bradley Cooper‘s A Star is Born, in which Gaga stars as immensely talented singer-songwriter and extremely likeable heroine Ally, was one of the many pleasant surprises of the competition. From the moment we hear her sing “La Vie En Rose” at a drag bar, we can’t help but be mesmerised by her personality. When she meets successful rockstar Jackson Maine (Cooper) and embarks on a new journey with him, we are captivated by her strength to stay true to her beliefs while having to face her fears and his demons, all this while deciding which kind of artist she wants to be.
A Star Is Born revolves around music but is so much more than a love story between two musicians. It’s the story of a girl who grows up, finds her voice and stays true to herself. It’s a film about love, pain, loss and courage, which shows us that music can hurt and heal. Ally’s songs move us, inspire us and ultimately send across a universal message of acceptance.
But Bradley Cooper isn’t the only director who used music as a means to delve into deeper issues at the festival: Brady Corbet’s Vox Lux is also about a troubled musician. Don’t get me wrong: the two films couldn’t be more different in terms of narrative, content, structure and even in their approach to their characters. A Star is Born is epic, romantic, and it encourages the audience to follow their dreams, while Vox Lux is dark, complex, and sometimes even odd. Corbet’s nonlinear, disrupted storyline is as puzzling and confusing as its characters’ evolution, and yet its underlying themes are not that different from Cooper’s love story after all.
Vox Lux originates from tragedy, and its protagonist, Celeste (Raffey Cassidy/Natalie Portman), is first and foremost a survivor. Our heroine is a broken soul whose rise to stardom is directly connected to a Columbine-style high school massacre she happened to witness and survive as a teenager. The song she sings with her sister (Stacy Martin) at the memorial service revolutionises her life, transforming her into a celebrity and, at the same time, robbing her of her youth. When a (somewhat unreliable) narrator (Willem Dafoe) takes us from “teenage Celeste” (Cassidy)’s meeting with a manager (Jude Law) and first experiences as a popstar to “2017 Celeste” (Portman), we lose 18 years of her life. The disillusioned, arrogant and foul-mouthed woman we see in 2017 couldn’t be more different from the innocent girl she used to be as a teenager. Adult Celeste is a superstar and a mother, and, as we see her struggle with her career and dealing with her daughter (who also happens to be played by Raffey Cassidy), we can’t quite understand what led her to become this kind of person.
The gaps in the narrative make it difficult for us to get to know the real Celeste, as we are only given a few key moments of her life. It is quite obvious to us that the person we see on the screen is a broken human being – both physically and emotionally. The necklaces she wears to cover the scars from the accident are a constant reminder of how much tragedy she carries with her, and almost seem to be holding her together. Her mood swings and erratic behaviour confirm it: Celeste is only barely standing, completely helpless and at the mercy of events.
What makes Vox Lux so unique and perhaps even provocative is that it is up to us – the audience – to establish when, how and in what way exactly her insecurities took over. The most important moments of Celeste’s life – and of the whole film – are the ones we don’t get to see on the screen, and this is what truly makes Vox Lux a “Twenty-first Century Portrait”, as the tagline suggests. By filling the gaps in the narrative and adding the missing pieces, we connect to the story more personally and at a deeper level. In a matter of seconds and in line with Lars Von Trier (Corbet’s mentor and friend)’s tradition, the film stops being about Celeste and becomes a much darker analysis of our culture and society.
So why did I choose to compare two films that appear to have nothing in common? Because they actually do. A Star is Born and Vox Lux both deal with the consequences of a person’s rise to fame. Ally and Celeste’s life-changing events are on opposite ends of the “positivity” spectrum: one is a chance meeting with a future love interest and the other a violent high school massacre, Our two heroines are two very different people who are shaped by extremely different events, but they both use music as a means to express themselves and escape reality. They both experience the thrill of releasing a hit song, having a career, getting recognised by their fans. But they also experience the negative side of fame, as they lose their right to privacy and strangers feel entitled to take pictures of them in bars and supermarkets. They make new acquaintances who promise to have their best interests at heart, their public image gets distorted for marketing’s sake and, at the same time, theirmost intimate relationships change.
Ally and Celeste are still strangers to the music industry when they are forced to decide who they want to be as artists. They listen to their managers and end up singing lyrics that make no sense, wearing revealing clothes that do not represent them and reciting rehearsed speeches, until their true selves disappear. This glittery, glamorous world reels them in so convincingly that, for a moment, their whole identity is questioned: that is the most significant similarity between the two films.
A Star is Born is a love story. It will make you laugh and it will move you, it will surprise you and draw you into a world where everything is possible and dreams really do come true. You will fall in love with Ally’s positivity and grow up with her, in a feel-good movie that you will want to re-watch over and over again, with catchy songs, phenomenal acting from Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Sam Elliot, Dave Chappelle and all cast members involved. Vox Lux is a story in which the most important parts are left out. It will leave you questioning the nature of fame, and it will make you wonder about what makes us who we are. It’s ironic, cynical, pessimistic, but ultimately real. It’s not an easy film to watch and its heroine is definitely flawed, but it’s a true portrayal of our society and one that gives us the freedom to decide what we want to make of it.
Both films deal with fame, identity and role models. The celebrities we admire and feel close to are not always who we think they are: behind the flawless public facade we see, there’s a long journey of soul-searching and self-knowledge. This journey leaves behind a trail of failure, tragedy and bad choices, and sometimes those very same role models we worship and imitate are falling to pieces. But it doesn’t matter how many hard choices life puts in our way and how broken we come out of it in the end: the path to acceptance is long, but Allie, Celeste and Jackson teach us that it’s always worth to keep going.
A Star is Born and Vox Lux premiered at the 75. Venice Film Festival in September 2018.
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