Sing for Your Life: Favorite Female Singers in Cinema

Here at 25YLSite, we handle a lot of heavy lifting. Analysis, interpretation, deep discussion, introspective interviews…you name it, we’ve got it. “Favorites” takes a lighter approach to the material we normally cover. Each week, we will take you through a list of favorites—whether it’s moments, scenes, episodes, characters, lines of dialogue, whatever!—in bite-sized articles perfect for your lunch break, a dull commute, or anywhere you need to take a Moment of Zen. So, sit back and enjoy this week’s offering as part of our month Celebrating Women on screen and behind the camera: Alex Jiménez Nimmo’s favorite female singers in cinema.

Recently, there has been a surge of films and TV series that depict the rise and fall of the female pop star. It’s a genre that is intriguing as it is bizarre, overall giving the viewer a fascinating glimpse into the female psyche. We often worship singers like goddesses or icons, and these movies/episodes delve deep into the creation of both divas and monsters. First of all, a quick disclaimer: this is not a complete list, as some films I wanted to include have not been given wide release in Europe (sorry Elisabeth Moss and Her Smell!). So, put on your wigs and coat yourself with glitter for here are my favourite female pop stars in cinema:

Ashley O from Black Mirror (Miley Cyrus)

Black Mirror's Ashley O (portrayed by Miley Cyrus) sitting down with a pink wig on

The most recent series to explore this theme, the third episode of the fifth season of Black Mirror was a radical departure from the bleaker, more gut-wrenching episodes of the first couple of seasons. This installment follows the story of Ashley O, a seemingly upbeat pop star who is eventually induced into a coma by her manipulative aunt to extract her dream-induced compositions without complaint.  A myriad of reactions have sprung out from this episode, with some critics arguing that it felt like they were watching a Disney Channel movie rather than a Black Mirror episode. To a degree, this is largely because of who plays Ashley O. Depending on your position on Miley Cyrus, you will either tolerate or hate this particular chapter of the season. As someone whose childhood happened during peak Hannah Montana mania, the thought of Miley Cyrus appearing in a Black Mirror episode was scary in itself.

However, I would have liked to see a greater and darker focus on Ashley O’s tale. The idea of a pop star being mentally controlled to draw out only their melodies is a fantastic concept, and Cyrus does a pretty good job at portraying both her human and robot counterparts, but a lot of the essence of Black Mirror is lost in subplot and jokes we have seen done a million times. Perhaps a greater focus on the mind of Ashley O and the torture of not being able to stop composing in her dreams would have brought this episode back to its roots. If you are feeling up to a feel-hour with a light-hearted spin on a well-known pop icon, by all means check this out.  But if you are expecting another The National Anthem or White Bear, then probably give this a miss.

Marianne Lane from A Bigger Splash (Tilda Swinton)

Tilda Swinton as Marianne from Luca Guadagnino's A Bigger Splash

This 2015 Luca Guadagnino film centers on the life of a rockstar but we never really hear her sing. Marianne Lane is a world-famous singer who is recovering from an operation on her vocal cords. Relaxing on the Italian island of Pantelleria with her lover Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), all seems idyllic until the arrival of her ex-boyfriend Harry (Ralph Fiennes) and his seductive daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson) who soon let the cat among the pigeons. Tilda Swinton, a Guadagnino regular, is breathtaking as Marianne. Although she is a singer, her character can barely talk, let alone sing throughout the entire movie. Swinton communicates through broken whispers, pantomimic gestures and carefully calculated facial expressions.

It was Swinton herself who stated that she would not accept the role of Marianne had the character not been silent. In an interview with the BBC, she reported that “she just got into a fight with [herself]” and that for personal reasons she wanted Marianne to be a mute singer. Swinton’s decision matches Guadagnino’s vision perfectly, as A Bigger Splash is a deliciously indulgent film about desire and fame that lingers on the silent moments. We are shown glimpses of Marianne’s past life as a rockstar—shown as a confusing, overwhelming experience full of sweat and drugs—but it is the scorching Italian Campagna that ends up providing the ultimate note of discord.

Celeste from Vox Lux (Natalie Portman and Raffey Cassidy)

Natalie Portman stares viciously out of frame as Celeste from Vox Lux

Vox Lux is a surreal film that beautifully explores the impact of trauma and how fame and creativity are in constant strife. It opens with a brutal depiction of a school shooting that sets the scene for the harrowing life of one of its survivors, Celeste. After singing at a vigil for her fellow classmates, Celeste is skyrocketed to fame and fortune at a young age, all while still coping with both the emotional and physical baggage of her terrifying experience. Two actresses portray Celeste: Raffey Cassidy, who gives a brilliantly understated performance as an apathetic but vulnerable teenager, and Natalie Portman, who transforms Celeste into a jaded pill-popping musician.

Vox Lux not only boasts strong acting talent but a powerful soundtrack as well. The ever-inventive Sia provides Celeste’s music, creating a score that ranges from fantastically danceable to elegantly wistful. Moreover, this movie throws a curveball structurally speaking. The narrative does not follow a three-act composition, instead culminating in a 15-minute concert starring Natalie Portman in a sparkly one-piece suit surrounded by neon lights and glitter. It’s a camp, over-the-top ending that ideally suits the decadent lifestyle of its main character.

Lila and Violeta from Quién te Cantará (Najwa Nimri and Eva Llorach)

Najwa Nimri and Eva Llorach on a beach as Lila and Violeta in Carlos Vermut's Quién te Cantará

One of the most underrated films of 2018, Quién the Cantará is simply an astounding piece of cinema. Najwa Nimri portrays Lila Cassen, a singer who suffers from amnesia after a mysterious accident. She does not remember who she is nor how her songs are performed. To help her recover her memory, her manager Blanca (Carme Elías) decides to recruit the skills of Violeta, a karaoke performer who can imitate Lila to perfection. As the two women get closer, their lives and their identities start to spiral out of control.

Like the two sides of a vinyl, Violeta and Lila are welded together. Lila lives surrounded by luxury but has forgotten what gave birth to her creative spirit in the first place. Violeta, on the other hand, is under the tight grip of her controlling daughter Marta (Natalia de Molina) but survives thanks to her musical gift. As their names indicate, both women are different shades of the same colour and the cinematography echoes this fact, covering many scenes in a purple light.

The director, Carlos Vermut, has remarked that Quién the Cantará is overall a reflection on the “vampirization” of culture, a testament to how people feed off one another. Vermut certainly makes nods to films like Bergman’s Persona, or Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant.

If the dazzling popstar depictions on this list have sparked your interest, then Quién te Cantará is well worth checking out (beg your Spanish friends to watch it on Netflix!). Seamless directing, a stunning double performance by Nimri and Llorach, and it’s all tied up by a soundtrack you will be humming for days.

Written by Alex Jiménez Nimmo

Alex Jiménez Nimmo is an LGBT+ writer and Art Historian. When she is not admiring paintings, she is busy being obsessed with cats and beautiful actresses.

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