Pop goes the fantasy: how Vox Lux shows the darker side of music

While the Oscar-buzzed remake of A Star is Born stuck to its romantically old-fashioned roots, the Natalie Portman-starring drama offers a toxic alternative

Who’d be a pop star, eh? If there’s one thing we’ve learned from cinema in 2018 – A Star is Born, Vox Lux, even the PG-rated neutering of Freddie Mercury’s legend in Bohemian Rhapsody – it’s that the gleaming lights of the music industry can emit a pretty harsh glow when you’re under them, that the warm embrace of a crowd can turn to a stranglehold in the blink of a heavily made-up eye. That fame comes at a price is, admittedly, not the hottest of takes: in the movies, it goes back at least as, well, 1932’s What Price Hollywood?, the film that directly bore one of this year’s grit-amid-the-glitter case studies.

In Bradley Cooper’s fourth official iteration of A Star is Born, an earthy, working-class nightclub chanteuse played by Lady Gaga is made over, more or less, into Lady Gaga: the mononymous Ally, a metallically polished, millions-selling pop diva whose heart is broken and whose soul is compromised en route to true, unfettered artistry. By the time she croons, with a pained tremor in her Whitney-style pipes, the weepy ballad I’ll Never Love Again in the film’s finale – to a raptly sympathetic audience mindful of what she has lost along the way – the film aligns itself with the age-old view that great art is born of suffering, and that the best singers channel their life’s pain into their voices.

That moral hinges on the film’s own rather conservative musical preferences: we’re invited to see I’ll Never Love Again, a supremely well-shaped slab of pop melodrama that any belter from Barbra Streisand to Celine Dion would have similarly nailed in decades past, as a richer, more satisfying artistic statement than any of the sassier R&B-inflected cuts that saw her scale the charts. (“Why’d you come around me with an ass like that?” she snaps on one, in a bumping, grinding Saturday Night Live performance intended to signal her lowest creative ebb.)

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