Lady Gaga is a theatre kid who inhaled too much Warhol when she was young and then deluged Interscope Records’ owner Jimmy Iovine with a rhapsody on the nature and evolution of fame in the 20th century, how she could be the one to usher his ideas into the mainstream for the 21st. Lady Gaga is always performing, always doing drag, even when she’s performing not performing (her Netflix documentary Five Foot Two), or performing authenticity (her 2016 album Joanne), or performing the performance of authenticity (A Star is Born). But to read Lady Gaga’s never-ending performance, even her implied revisionism in A Star is Born, as an argument that artifice is, well, artifice—devoid of depth or significance and bad—would be untrue. Would be missing the point. Maybe one of the few people who understands that is actor-turned-writer-director Brady Corbet.
Once a darling of Euro auteurs, Corbet turned his focus to filmmaking with a 2014 debut called The Childhood of a Leader, and has now returned with Vox Lux, auspiciously subtitled “A Twenty First Century Portrait,” a bifurcated Faustian portrait of a singer whose relationship with cultural tragedy is an intimate part of her identity and career. After surviving a school shooting in 1999, Celeste (played in the first act by Raffey Cassidy) rises from the ashes to pen an anthem that catapults her to fame. Her background is illustrated as such: “Celeste was born in America in 1986.” And in 2017, Celeste’s (now played by Natalie Portman) star threatens to dim, but her cultural reach is enough to inspire terrorists in Croatia to use masks reminiscent of the ones featured in her first music video. She has survived personal and public shame, and she is ready to reemerge with her new studio album. Maybe to heal herself, or provide solace for the ones around her, or her legions of fans. She’s ready to be watched. “They wanted a show, I gave ‘em a show.”
Bradley Cooper’s swing at A Star is Born is also obsessed with artifice and drag, but sees those things as costumery veiling an honest self. It’s hard to tell to what degree it is Cooper’s point of view that’s condescending to pop as a respectable format or genre, or if it’s just the movie’s, or if it’s just his drunken country drawler Jackson Maine’s, but there is a striking juxtaposition between the songs Gaga’s Ally pens before her star is birthed and after, going from piano ballads reminiscent of Elton John, like “Remember Us This Way,” and operatic rock-adjacent anthems like “Shallow,” to starkly simple tracks like “Hair Body Face” and “Why Did You Do That to Me?” Gaga’s involvement gives the film most of its merit, able to be contextualized within her career, and thus within her penchant for performativity. Though A Star is Born can curiously operate like a companion to Joanne or a complement to her music video for “Marry the Night” in its self-conscious revisionism, it is fundamentally at odds with the very genre in which she’s famous for working. Which is not to say that Lady Gaga herself is at odds with that genre, but rather that the friction between her art, how she views her art and how she views her viewing her art is what gives Cooper’s film it’s most interesting thrust.
If A Star is Born has, to whatever degree, an antagonistic view of pop, Corbet’s Vox Lux is not only a tonic, but a film as much about Lady Gaga as the former. It asks: What if she’s telling the truth and pop music is the format in which she can be most sincere? What if artifice can reveal authenticity after all? What if a pop star could be both goddess and mortal?
Celeste’s identity, as person and as artist, is so heavily defined by trauma that it becomes the DNA guiding her music. One could say the same of Gaga; though nothing compared to a school shooting, Gaga’s debut album The Fame was released in August 2008 as the Great Recession was dawning for most Americans. Celeste, in turn, is referred to as a “victim of Reaganomics.” Celeste was a beacon of hope and Gaga was a beacon of distraction: Both are the American culture in drag as entertainment. The materials they’ve used for their showy, ostentatious mixed media performance art constitute the very objects that will lead to our self-destruction. Lady Gaga is everything, literally an amalgamation of our worst consumerist habits, a hodgepodge of late capitalist fears and virtues reconstituted as a pure expression of joy and angst. And if A Star is Born is about Lady Gaga the performer, Vox Lux is about Lady Gaga the abstraction, what Charles Bramesco referred to as a “cracked-mirror version” of Gaga.
“This is the culmination of my life’s work so far,” Celeste tells a journalist. “It’s about rebirth.” Gaga is ever the shapeshifter, but the critical core between these two artists is how they’ve been viewed in the public eye: to what degree that is the thing they want to escape, or the element that makes them so important. While Vox Lux eerily reflects the culture in a litany of acute ways, operating somewhat prophetically (the script had already been completed at the time of the Manchester Arena bombing in May 2017 at an Ariana Grande concert), with other artists able to fill in as proxies for Celeste—the film could be as much a meta-revisionist film about star Natalie Portman’s own relationship to fame and identity—the blood and bones of it feel like Lady Gaga’s.
And not just because of Celeste’s makeup, or because of Vox Lux’s pop music, or because of the fact that Celeste calls her fans “Little Angels,” or that Lady Gaga and Celeste are both New York girls, or that Celeste’s complicated relationship with older sister Ellie (Stacy Martin) and all she represents is reminiscent of when Gaga’s younger sister, Natali, appeared in the “Telephone” video—Lady Gaga and Celeste are aligned because of the visceral response the two make to the claim that Western culture has long decayed and rotted. They are, despite their different universes, both responsible and not responsible for the change in the culture, in the landscape. Celeste says earnestly, “That’s what I love about pop music. I don’t want people to think too hard. I just want them to feel good.” Lady Gaga’s debut single was “Just Dance,” peaking the Billboard Hot 100 in January 2009.
Vox Lux can get away with more telling than showing—with the dulcet tones of Willem Dafoe’s narration and Celeste’s own perspective about the way media and consumption have changed—purely because the tension between trauma and the desire to find joy and pure, unadulterated excitement can be felt in every frame of the film. The film tremors, flooded with emotion when Celeste finally admits, “I’m scared,” thereby earning its dedication to Jonathan Demme. Celeste’s dreams tell her she’s immortal, and her first big single is called “Alive.” Lady Gaga has the end of her “Bad Romance” video as she lies next to cinders of men, people, past. But there’s sincerity there.
As her pop star project has expanded, from Born This Way to ARTPOP to Cheek to Cheek to Joanne, Lady Gaga has revealed that it’s basically a question: Who are you in a world where your idols are sold to you, where the potential to become yourself, whatever that may mean, is predetermined in an atrophying culture? This is what brings these two pop stars together, magnetically drawn to one another across realities and fictions like a Persona swap. When the two of them are on stage, they seem as if they’re made to be there—but chained as well. They’ve been in the music industry for over a decade; they know the stage so well. They’re tired, but they keep going. What else do they have left? Just dance.