From Teen Spirit to A Star Is Born: What’s With All the Movies About Pop Stars?

Christopher Rosa
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From Teen Spirit to A Star Is Born: What’s With All the Movies About Pop Stars?

There's a new trend happening: glittery, melodramatic films about women in music. But why? Writer Christopher Rosa investigates.

Google the phrase "Britney Spears 2007 tabloids," and you'll find several disturbing headlines: "Exclusive: Britney's Meltdown," "Britney Hits Rock Bottom," "Why Britney Snapped," "Britney: Out of Control."

These stories, in a nutshell, describe the way we consumed Spears' personal struggles at the time. She wasn't a person but a punch line: Each real-life issue of hers played out like must-see television. There was no attempt to understand what she was going through or concern for her mental health. Instead, the once-beloved star was written off as irrelevant and "crazy," a two-dimensional caricature designed for late-night fodder.

It's a far cry from how people are responding to Spears now. The Glory singer is reportedly seeking treatment at a wellness center, and the surrounding coverage has been (mostly) kind. When one outlet made an off-color pun—"Commit me baby one more time"—fans came out in droves to defend Spears. There's been a noticeable shift since 2007 in the way we view mega-stars experiencing crises, specifically female ones.

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Elisabeth Moss as Becky Something in Her Smell (2019)
Everett Collection / Everett Collection

Interestingly, what's happening in movies right now reflects this. There have been not one, not two, but four films to come out in recent months that explore the psyche of female music stars. First there was A Star Is Born, in which Lady Gaga plays Ally, an aspiring singer who achieves supersonic fame at a devastating cost. Two months later there was Vox Lux, a gripping drama about a pop star, Celeste (Natalie Portman), staging a comeback after years of well-documented struggles.

Today, April 19, two more were released. Teen Spirit stars Elle Fanning as Violet, a young girl plucked from obscurity for a singing competition. Her Smell is an indie film about the self-destruction of a female rock star named Becky Something (Elisabeth Moss).

They're not easy movies to watch. Three of these four characters have narratives eerily similar to Spears', though it's unfair to assume she was a direct inspiration. Becky Something and Celeste have full-blown emotional breakdowns in public. Violet goes clubbing one night to alleviate stress and winds up partying too hard. The only one who doesn't quite fit is Ally, but the vulnerability she exudes in A Star Is Born's final scene has shades of 2007 Britney. The difference: Britney was crucified for showing weakness back then while Ally is applauded. Literally.

“Watching someone’s rise to stardom is very cinematic. It’s a story that’s always going to be told in one way or another.”

Elle Fanning and Max Minghella, the director of Teen Spirit, point to a few reasons we're getting several pop-star films in a row. Minghella thinks they might be a response to another popular music movie. "The success of La La Land has given people the confidence to green-light projects I think they'd been hesitant to for a long time," he explains. "There was never an appetite for [Teen Spirit] to be made until La La Land did OK."

Fanning, however, sees a more historical explanation for the trend. "Watching someone's rise to stardom is very cinematic," she says. "It's a story that's always going to be told in one way or another." Even so, "there's something really magical about it. It's weird three or four filmmakers all came up with the idea to do [music movies]. Obviously there's something in the atmosphere."

For my part, I don't think it's a coincidence these movies are coming out now, a time when our culture is kinder to not just flawed pop stars but flawed women in general. We still have a long way to go, of course. As Sady Doyle, the author of Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear...and Why, tells Glamour, "All of us are raised to believe that we have the right to judge and control women’s lives and decisions. That is a perfect recipe for mob hatred and punitive vigilante cruelty."

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Natalie Portman as Celeste in Vox Lux (2018)
Everett Collection / Everett Collection

But the tides are turning. There isn't as harsh of a response to women making mistakes in public as there was 10 years ago. In fact, it's the imperfections that people are often drawn to. Take Ariana Grande, arguably the biggest pop star in the business right now, whose M.O. is complete transparency with her fans. She talks to them, tweets at them—she even shares photos of her brain scans with them. Nothing feels polished or premeditated.

It's why, I think, movies like Teen Spirit and Her Smell are so compelling. I could see fans on social media jumping to the defense of Becky Something, Violet, and Celeste if they were real. Women's media outlets, including Glamour, would call out unfair headlines about them. Empathy is more deeply rooted in public consciousness now, which gives space for these characters to exist onscreen in their full complexity.

Fanning is excited about this. "Violet is not manufactured," she says. "That's why she makes it so far. She has a real story with real emotion. She's hardened. She has a hard shell. I love getting to play someone who is not necessarily the most likable."

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Elle Fanning as Violet Valenski in Teen Spirit (2019)
Everett Collection / Everett Collection

It's Violet's "unlikability" that Minghella thinks people will identify with the most. "This Violet character is incredibly authentic," he says. "She doesn't always do the right thing. She doesn't always get everything right. There's a real authenticity to her, but she is a superhero character. I hope this gives people somebody to look up to who feels like a reflection of real life and not something that's been photoshopped to death."

I feel the same. Yes, musicians like Ally and Violet are glamorous and larger-than-life, but underneath the glitter and sequins is a beating heart. Society didn't fully realize this 10 years ago, which is why I don't think Vox Lux, Her Smell, Teen Spirit, or even A Star Is Born would have worked. Viewers might have dismissed these women's very real struggles as champagne problems for the rich and famous. Or seen Celeste and Becky Something as objects for ridicule, just like they did Britney Spears.

Now some people might roll their eyes at these movies, but the issues they cover, like addiction, media scrutiny, and mental illness, won't be disregarded just because a glossy pop icon is at the center. That's refreshing. If only Britney Spears could've had the same respect in 2007.

Christopher Rosa is the staff entertainment writer at Glamour. Follow him on Twitter @chrisrosa92.