Notebook Primer: Pop Fictions

An exploration of cinema's relationship to popular music and how the shape-shifting genre has progressed throughout the decades.
Luke Goodsell
The Notebook Primer introduces readers to some of the most important figures, films, genres, and movements in film history.
Velvet Goldmine (1998)
Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine (1998) opens with a confession that swiftly becomes a command: “Although what you are about to see is a work of fiction, it should nevertheless be played at maximum volume.” Those words, mischievously repurposed from Martin Scorsese’s concert film The Last Waltz (1978), herald one of the great pop music fantasias: a cinema à clef that reimagines ’70s glam rock in an alternate dimension, where fictional versions of David Bowie, Iggy Pop and others perform a parallel version of history as we know it. Embracing the period’s mutable personae and camp energies, the film evokes the spirit of its patron saint, Oscar Wilde—depicted as the original pop star, descended to Earth from outer space—treating “art as the supreme reality and life as a mere mode of fiction,” where only the superficial might conjure the real.
Cinema’s relationship with popular music dates back to the earliest days of moving pictures, and its fascination with making fictional pop music films—let’s call them “pop fictions”—reaches almost as far. Two of the 20th-century’s defining popular art forms, cinema and pop, often moved in tandem, complicated—even electrified—by the tension between art and commerce. (Like the music they celebrate, pop fictions are both immediately recognizable and easily dismissed; rarely afforded much in the way of critical consideration.) Pop music needed the spectacle of cinema for its global domination, and in turn, cinema would become obsessed with recreating pop in its own image—a psychic playground for its own fantasies of adulation. 
The mediums are practically tethered by fate: the very first Hollywood talkie, The Jazz Singer (1927), is itself a pop fiction. The story of a singer who defies his orthodox Jewish family to pursue a career crooning jazz standards, it set the template for cinema’s rags-to-riches tale of pop stardom, in which a performer—here, ’20s superstar Al Jolson in an abstraction of his real-life persona—manifests their artistic dreams and vulnerabilities. The film also intimated pop’s complicated legacy of cultural cross-pollination: Jolson’s climactic blackface performance of “My Mammy” underlines the transformative power of pop’s mask while anticipating white musicians’ appropriation of rock ’n’ roll in the decades to come.
The Jazz Singer (1927) / Stormy Weather (1943)
It’s a thread that winds its way through the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood, from cartoon pop icon Betty Boop to the razzle-dazzle, sometimes blacked-up musicals of Fred Astaire, Judy Garland and Bing Crosby—the latter the headline star of the improbable Birth of the Blues (1941), a fictionalized story of the all-white Original Dixieland Jass Band who styled themselves as pioneers of Jazz. Still, the era also saw the pop fiction, often in the shape of the “race picture,” become a showcase for Black performers who otherwise might never have reached a wider audience. Josephine Baker’s singing and dancing animates the often queasy stereotypes and narratives of her films, Cab Calloway plays a version of himself in Hi-De-Ho (1947) and appears alongside Lena Horne in the exuberant Stormy Weather (1943), a fictional tale loosely based on the career of its tap dancing star, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. These films were the exceptions in an era of Crosby and Frank Sinatra, reigning as variations on crooners and songwriters, but they demonstrated the potential of the pop fiction to puncture Hollywood’s more exclusionary, mainstream narrative of musical stardom.
Movies were also quick to capitalize on the post-war sound of rock ‘n’ roll, where in Hollywood, the legends were sculpted—as usual—by those with the power. Bouncing off the success of Blackboard Jungle (1955), Rock Around the Clock (1956) spins a fanciful history of rock’s discovery, with taste-making disc jockey Alan Freed as himself and Bill Haley & His Comets as the band with the hot new sound, while rock ‘n’ rollers were busy making explosive, landscape-shifting cameos in films like Frank Tashlin’s The Girl Can’t Help It (1956) and Hollywood was tripping over itself to turn the young Elvis Presley into a movie star. In Japan, pretty chanteuse films like So Young, So Bright (1955) would give way to raucous fare like The Stormy Man (1957), starring youth icon Yûjirô Ishihara as a street rocker risen to success, while in England—soon to export its own performance of rock ‘n’ roll back to America—teen idol Cliff Richard played an aspiring rock singer on the up in The Young Ones (1961).
A Hard Day’s Night (1964) / Privilege (1967)
Like so much pop ephemera of the 1960s, the decade’s fictional music films were in some part influenced by The Beatles, and Richard Lester’s playfully irreverent A Hard Day’s Night (1964), in which the Fab Four, flush with world-straddling success, play gently skewed versions of themselves on the run from fame. The band and the film would inspire its own run of copycats, notably John Boorman’s Catch Us If You Can (1965), starring the Dave Clark Five, and the American TV series The Monkees (1966), complete with a fictional band assembled for the occasion, but the decade’s notions of freewheeling pop utopia wouldn’t last. Hollywood, by then in the throes of its own identity crisis, foresaw the darker side of stardom’s burnout in Inside Daisy Clover (1965), an acrid fable about an early 20th-century singer-actress chewed up by dream factory that caught the rot inside stardom’s exploitation. Sure enough, as the counterculture’s vision curdled, the pop fiction turned from celebratory to cynical—a considerably darker perspective that would soon come to define the genre.
Youthful rock stars revolt and run (disastrously) for presidential office in Wild in the Streets (1968), terrorize the rich in the bizarre, John Waters-adjacent Angel, Angel, Down We Go (1969) and succumb to industry’s hedonistic freefall in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970), while the Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger headlines two avant-garde visions that explore the idea of pop stardom as culture’s dirty mirror: Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell’s identity-swapping Performance (1970), an eerie transposing of rock and crime, and Jean-Luc Godard’s slippery docu-fiction Sympathy for the Devil (1968), which lays traps for troubadours on the road to revolution. But it’s Peter Watkins’ Privilege (1967) that really sets the tone for the fictional pop star narratives that follow: a saturnine, near-future warning about a rock god—played by real life mod hero Paul Jones—weaponized as the puppet of a far-right state, it’s rife with grisly portent concerning mass spectacle, media manipulation and the prison of fame, even if its satire can seem quaint by modern measures.
Phantom of the Paradise (1974) / Sparkle (1976)
Privilege’s sinister cabal gets a cartoonish, glam rock makeover in Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise (1974), where Paul Williams’ Mephistophelean overlord manipulates the vagaries of pop du jour while Frankensteining a hapless songwriter—William Finley’s vocoder ghost of Daft Punk future—to do his hit-making bidding. Michael Apted’s Stardust (1974), buries the coming-of-age exuberance of its predecessor, That’ll Be the Day (1973) in hermetic rock star hubris, while both Perry Henzell’s reggae classic The Harder They Come (1972) and the revealingly rough Slade in Flame (1975), starring the titular glam rockers, use fictionalized stories to depict the realities of making records in a world of crime and hustle.
As a major wave of nostalgia began to wash over pop culture—cresting with the likes of American Graffiti (1973) and Grease (1978)pop fictions found themselves negotiating a growing dissonance with the recent past. Sam O’Steen’s Sparkle (1976) revisits the formative years of a pre-Motown, Supremes-esque girl group through a gritty Blaxploitation lens, digging beyond halcyon throwback to suggest the industry’s exploitation of, and violence against, Black women (and laying the groundwork for 1981’s musical-turned-2006-film Dreamgirls, and Robert Townsend’s 1991 Temptations-inspired The Five Heartbeats.) Janis Joplin’s excess drives The Rose (1979), with a power-ballading Bette Midler standing in for the rocker in a tale of late-’60s burnout, and The Beatles are gruesomely reanimated in Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978), with the Bee Gees as the eponymous music hall stars and the mournful voices of robot masseuses. Boomer anxiety was everywhere. The ghosts of unrealized ’60s dreams haunt Eddie and the Cruisers (1983) and the Paul Simon vehicle One Trick Pony (1980), which attempt to reconcile the past with an encroaching ’80s inertia, while Walter Hill’s Streets of Fire (1984) scrambles the delinquent poses of the ’50s with the high-tech bombast of the present. Ralph Bakshi’s animated opus American Pop (1981) swings for the fences—and what seems like the entirety of pop music—via a multi-generational saga of an immigrant family that moves from the early 20th-century to its then-present. If Bakshi’s vision of pop’s hi-tech tomorrow, dominated by aviator-sunglasses and Bob Seger and FM radio jams, proved less than prescient, then its rotoscope neon imagery feels nothing short of futuristic—enough so that even Kanye West and music video auteur Hype Williams paid homage.
American Pop (1981) / Ladies and Gentlemen the Fabulous Stains (1982)
Bakshi’s film barely glances at punk, but the upstart sound, itself wrapped in nostalgia for rock ‘n’ roll’s early rebellion, would become a fertile playground for filmmakers to explore pop performance. There were films that aligned themselves with the movement’s luminaries, like Uli Lommel’s Blank Generation (1980), with Richard Hell as a downtown punk on the verge, and Allan Arkush’s Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (1979), an only slightly-left-of-reality vehicle for the Ramones that riffs on the spirit of ’50s exploitation cheapies; or those, like Derek Jarman’s Jubilee (1978), who imagine punk musicians in society’s future apocalypse. In Breaking Glass (1980), a punk rocker turned new wave poppet becomes a paranoid victim of her sudden success, and Ladies and Gentlemen the Fabulous Stains (1982) depicts a trio of dead-end kids (led by a baby-faced Diane Lane and Laura Dern) who become sensations—then sellouts—when their bratty sound catches on amid the death rattle of glam and macho punk. 
Forgotten upon release, the film, inspired by bands like The Slits and The Raincoats, would all but fulfill its original prophecy of punker girls taking on the world, a pop fiction manifest as real. In the years to come, it would help ferment the riot grrrl movement, reverberate in the skuzzy wastoids of David Markey’s Desperate Teenage Lovedolls (1984) and Lovedolls Superstar (1986), and inform the all-girl high-school punks of Lukas Moodysson’s We Are the Best! (2013) and Nobuhiro Yamashita’s Linda Linda Linda (2005) (which birthed its own real-life band.) More recently, Alex Ross Perry’s Her Smell (2018) resurrects the uncomfortable image of the female punk star as hysterical disaster, while Gus Van Sant’s Last Days (2005)—a ghostly elegy for a fading, Kurt Cobain-esque grunge icon—echoes the premonition of the Stains’ Rasta tour manager: “Everybody wants to get to heaven, but nobody wants to die.”
Though history has sometimes held them as opposing forces, punk and disco both understood the inherent fantasy of performance and artifice in ways that lent themselves to the pop fiction. Donna Summer hustles her way through Thank God It’s Friday (1978), playing an aspiring singer desperate to get her track noticed by the DJ at an LA super-club; the Village People’s widely derided Can’t Stop the Music (1980), a fictionalized behind-the-scenes romp, displays as much ironic savvy as its punk counterparts; while the ill-fated oddity Xanadu (1980), starring Olivia Newton-John as an all-singing, all-roller-skating celestial muse who morphs through pop genres, has an eerie, out-of-time decadence that mixes ancient myth and camp in ways that might have been a Jarman project in another world.
Rock & Rule (1983) / The Legend of the Stardust Brothers (1985)
Both were prematurely eulogized, yet punk and disco—and the films they inspired—would mutate into new, global strains. In the troubling German exploitation film Der Fan (1982), a Gary Numan-like synth-pop star experiences the chilling predations of a teenage devotee; in Gillian Armstrong’s vibrant Starstruck (1982), scrappy Australian New Wave meets the Hollywood musical; and in Bollywood curio Star (1982), Indian super-producer Biddu presides over a rock fable hitched to the disco beats of Pakistani icons Nazia and Zoheb Hassan. From Japan, Macoto Tezuka’s The Legend of the Stardust Brothers (1985)—dedicated to none other than Phantom of the Paradise’s doomed songwriter Winslow Leach—pushes a hyperactive music industry satire about manufactured insta-stardom to cartoonish, record-mogul-as-dictator extremes; while Debbie Harry, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop are among the voices in the Canadian animated feature Rock & Rule (1983), in which an aging rock star combs the galaxy for the angelic voice that might unleash an all-powerful demon. In other words, it’s about the music industry—even if the rockers are all humanoid rodents. 
The ’80s delivered many such (truly) outrageous conceits, from the marooned hairspray queens of Albert Pyun’s Vicious Lips (1986) to the mega-star cartoon bands dueling in American kids TV’s Jem and the Holograms (1985), a junk-food study of alter-ego in which music manager Jerrica Benton projects a high-tech hologram to become a pop idol. Not to be outdone, the princess of plastic pop got in on the act with Barbie and the Rockers, from 1987, the same year that Mattel’s 12-inch doll was also the unlikely star of Todd Haynes’ debut, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, an unsettling recreation of the anorexic singer’s life that highlights the perils of becoming an image, a fabrication—literally, in the case of its polyvinyl chloride actors. 
Purple Rain (1984) / This Is Spın̈al Tap (1984)
Abetted by the ascent of hair metal, rock barreled headlong into parody to find its bozo heart: Allan Arkush’s Get Crazy (1983) watches a parade of hapless rock stars (include Malcolm McDowell’s Jagger-esque horndog) attempt to salvage a disaster-prone show, while Rob Reiner’s endlessly quoted This Is Spın̈al Tap (1984) turns the goofball antics of 200 Motels (1971) and All You Need Is Cash (1978) up to 11, establishing the rock mockumentary par excellence: a farcical ride-along with a past-their-prime hard rock act blundering their way into a new era. (Co-writer and star Christopher Guest would train a similar eye on folk music in 2003’s A Mighty Wind.) Comedy soon became the default mode for much of rock cinema: in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) and its first sequel, the stadium riffs of two teenage knuckleheads are all that are preventing the universe from certain collapse, and later iterations confirm rock as a site of cheerful, if vaguely silly wish fulfillment. As Mark Wahlberg’s superfan-turned-frontman is informed in Stephen Herek’s Rock Star (2001): “Your job is to live the fantasy.”
If rock ‘n’ roll had become the subject of cinematic farce—fitting for a decade in which its cultural appropriation fueled a classic movie gag—then the age of the MTV superstar brought a heightened reciprocation between cinema and pop music. Cinema’s techniques were essential to pop’s music video dominance—where short-form promos became lavish miniatures—and movies were only too happy to repay the compliment. Look no further than Purple Rain (1984), a fictionalized story of the competitive Minneapolis funk scene, for a glimpse at the real Prince, his emotional bruises and supernova ego writ impossibly large—an empyrean fusion of pop and fiction that’s rarely been matched for sheer force of electricity. (Though not for want of trying: see His Purple Majesty’s diminished 1990 sequel, Graffiti Bridge.) 
While rock stars were taking to the form with decidedly mixed results (compare Michael Hutchence in 1986’s Dogs In Space with, say, Bob Dylan in 1987’s Hearts of Fire), it’s little surprise that hip-hop—with its origins in the hustle of cultural remix—was quick to apprehend the power of the pop fiction to make its myths. Michael Schultz’s Krush Groove (1985) plays like a coronation for New York’s burgeoning hip-hop empire, its story of a hot new label on the make—based, none-too-subtly, on Def Jam records—doubling as a showcase for many of the era’s stars, including headliners and ’80s superstars Run-DMC. Groove’s unexpected success bolstered hip-hop’s commercial aspirations, taking on the rock movie at its own game. By 1993, hip-hop even had its own Spın̈al Tap in Tamra Davis’s CB4, which satirizes the bluster of both gangsta rap machismo and conservative America’s reactionary panic. Clowning on unspoken truths with deceptive goofiness, co-writer Chris Rock plays the leader of a mild-mannered posse who impersonate hardened criminals in an industry clamoring for street edge—and take their act to the top of the charts as a result. (See also Rusty Cundieff’s 1993 comedy Fear of a Black Hat, a perfect companion piece.) As the genre proliferated, so did its ambitions: Curtis Hanson’s rap-battle knockout 8 Mile (2002) stands as Eminem’s very own Purple Rain—a print-the-legend, career-embalming view from the top where, per the film’s smash hit “Lose Yourself,” “superstardom is close to post-mortem.”
CB4 (1993) / 8 Mile (2002)
What is it about these fictional pop narratives that continue to draw filmmakers? Reflecting on Michael Jackson, the shape-shifting superstar who wielded music video as modern myth, writer Margo Jefferson notes how “art orders contradictions and unwelcome longings; glorifies what’s perverse or infantile, lavish and dream-bright, suave, abject, incurably romantic.” Pop fictions have always embraced the paradoxes at the heart of pop, transcending staid notions of realism to advocate for the absurd and the exaggerated.  
In their embrace of the artificial, they stand in stark contrast to cinema’s traditional music biopics, which obsess over recreations of truth—though often, as in the recent Rocketman (2019), Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) or Straight Outta Compton (2015), in the service of historically opaque brand maintenance. Pop fictions are the alter egos that liberate their subjects from the supposed authenticity of the biopic; the Ziggy Stardust to their David Jones, the Doctor Funkenstein to their George Clinton, the . . . Hannah Montana to their Miley Stewart—more playful, inventive, dangerous. Freed from cliché and the pretense of realism—what Wilde called “our monstrous worship of facts”—these films reflect the paradox at the heart of great pop, where truth and artifice are synonymous.  
Haynes knew this in both Superstar and Velvet Goldmine, films that pushed beyond the limits of the musical biopic and into the sublime. Completing the triumvirate, his nominal Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There (2007) takes the conventions of the form and turns them inside out, cutting to the quixotic essence of its subject by refracting the “real” Dylan through inscrutable permutations of age, race and gender. (The Coen brothers’ 2013 folk scene film Inside Llewyn Davis, an actual fiction, practically plays as kitchen-sink realism by comparison.) The same year, Jake Kasdan’s gonzo comedy Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story set out to lampoon the prestige biopics (2004’s Ray, 2005’s Walk the Line) that were sweeping awards shows at the time, lovingly regurgitating every cliché of 20th-century rock in the process. A near-absurdist deflation of legend, with John C. Reilly moving through history and genre—country, R&B, disco, symphonic goat pop—like a rock ‘n’ roll Zelig, it’s impossible to watch a music biopic and not think of it.
Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007) / Grace of My Heart (1996)
Though nostalgia continued as currency in everything from Tom Hanks’ one-hit-wonder throwback That Thing You Do! (1996) to Cameron Crowe’s Zeppelin-flavored reverie Almost Famous (2000), other pop fictions traded in revealing historical perspectives. Playing as something of a straight, dry run for Walk Hard, Allison Anders’ astute Grace of My Heart (1996) follows an aspiring singer-turned-Brill Building songwriter—an amalgamation of Carole King and record executive Florence Greenberg—whose role in cranking out factory hits sees her move across the musical landscape of the ’60s. The film sizes up an oft-unexplored phenomenon: comfortable, white songwriters penning songs about working-class urban life for Black groups. Where does artistic empathy end and cultural transgression begin? Grace leaves the question open, while charting a woman’s battle for autonomy in an industry dominated by the myth of the male genius. Issues of authorship return in John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001), which draws on glam and punk fringe-dwellers like Jobriath and Wayne County to depict a transgender glam rocker whose relationship with a pretty boy musician transforms him into a star—while she languishes in the shadows. In animator Bill Plympton’s surrealistic The Tune (1992), meanwhile, American pop—and American Pop—is distilled to the story of a songwriting schmo on a desperate quest to finish the perfect song for his tyrannical, cigar-munching record label boss, Mr. Mega.
As animated pop despots go, Mega is a benevolent magnate next to Earl de Darkwood, the maniacal impresario of Interstella 5555: The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5ystem (2003), Kazuhisa Takenouchi’s Daft Punk-inspired anime in which an evil promoter is kidnapping bands from alien worlds and repurposing them as hit-making human idols back on Earth. Prefab stars and the machinery of fame intrigued the pop fictions on the cusp of the new millennium. The unjustly maligned Spice Girls vehicle Spice World (1997), ostensibly a branded cash-in in the mode of A Hard Day’s Night, pulls double-duty as a pre-teen celebration of girl power and a knowing satire of the cartoonish feminism sold by the group—a carefully orchestrated pop sensation whose platformed heels walked so the era’s teen pop could run. Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont's similarly misunderstood—but since rightfully reclaimed—Josie and the Pussycats (2001) serves a manic meta-satire of music industry hyper-capitalism in which an omnipotent corporation, led by an irresistibly shrill Parker Posey, uses pop music to (quite literally) control the minds of the youth. In depicting the Machiavellian creation of pop idols and earworms, Josie draws a line from the ghoulish puppeteers of Privilege through The Apple (1980)—Menahem Golan’s off-kilter vision of manufactured pop in “1994”—and the ancient Songwriter of David Robert Mitchell’s Under the Silver Lake (2018), a gnarled misanthrope responsible for generations of hits, from Beethoven to the Backstreet Boys and Nirvana (“There is no rebellion, there’s only me, earnin’ a pay check!” he brags.)
Vox Lux (2018) / Josie and the Pussycats (2001)
The idea that pop music might be the grand design of shadowy overlords—Satanic moguls, fascistic church-states, mustache-twirling mega-corporations—remains a recurring obsession for filmmakers exploring the terrain; perhaps nowhere more than in Vox Lux (2018), Brady Corbet’s ambitious reckoning with stardom in the 21st century. Natalie Portman plays a turn of the millennium singer transformed—via a sinister Stockholm recording factory—into a pop idol during a time of violence and national anxiety, and Corbet attempts to thread the precarious relationship between violence, national trauma and the distraction of pop spectacle. Portman’s petulant diva is a star haunted by the horror of fame, from a formative school shooting to the “terrorists” that perpetrate attacks in her image; her paranoia recalls Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue (1997), in which a J-pop idol is hunted by a deranged stalker, itself an echo of The Bodyguard (1992), starring Whitney Houston as an R&B diva stalked by a psychotic fan—and retrospectively, a real-life icon in desperate need of rescue from her fame. 
Though its lofty, Privilege-like notions sometimes trip up its coherency, Vox Lux is a curious product in our age of so-called poptimism, where pop music has finally (and correctly) gotten its critical due. Festering among the films many wounds are thornier questions: in a world where they’re routinely willingly to stan pop stars backed by gigantic PR machinery, have audiences lost their ability to discern art from product? The Lonely Island’s mockumentary Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016) accurately, and hilariously, spoofs the era of Justin Bieber and Katy Perry, but the film barely registered in a landscape where pop and fiction have become almost indistinguishable on screen; where reality television series regularly generate singers (explored, to varying degrees of success, in 2005’s American Dreamz and 2018’s Teen Spirit) and Disney series continue to spawn pop stars from Miley Cyrus, The Jonas Brothers and Selena Gomez to their latest “overnight” sensation, Olivia Rodrigo. (How the filmmakers behind Josie must have chuckled at the latter’s rapid ascent to chart ubiquity.)
The audience’s appetite for pre-packaged star narratives might explain the resurgence of big, familiar-feeling pop movies in recent years. Mariah Carey’s notoriously mistimed Glitter (2001) arrived for the party too early, but its classic story of an aspiring pop ingénue and the man who falls into her shadow would return in Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born, a huge smash that owes as much to the country-rock of the 1976 version as it does the pop of its 2018 lead, Lady Gaga. Gina Prince-Bythewood’s Beyond the Lights (2014) drags The Bodyguard into the social media age, with Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s as a troubled R&B star rescued by a cop who becomes her protector; elsewhere, pop fantasy The High Note (2020) relapses into the old clichés about keeping it real, and Yesterday (2019) squanders one of the great pop fiction premises—a science fiction tomorrow where The Beatles never existed, but one man becomes a star by knowing all their songs—for a reversion to cornball writing and jukebox nostalgia. 
The Bodyguard (1992) / AIDOL (2019)
Yet just as these traditional narratives endure, new stories have emerged to decenter pop archetypes. The DJ film has bubbled under pop’s flashier fictions for decades, from the sound system parties of Franco Rosso’s Babylon (1980) to the hip-hop hopefuls of Stan Latham’s Beat Street (1984) and the disco pirates of Isaac Julien’sYoung Soul Rebels (1991), a film that fleshes out racial context to the punk of late ’70s Britain. Invoking the communal ethos of dance music, Mia Hansen-Løve’s house music odyssey Eden (2014) eschews the idea of the pop star completely, its would-be DJ heroes losing themselves in the ebb and flow of the dance-floor. Even aging doofuses Bill and Ted realize they’re but part of a larger musical ecosystem in Bill & Ted Face the Music (2020), assembling a multi-genre (and multi-era) musical collective to save the world with a rock song that’s closer to a New Age chant.
If pop stars can disappear into the music, then why not the ether? That’s one of the many ideas buzzing through Lawrence Lek’s fascinating, underseen AIDOL (2019), a futuristic film about a pop idol—known simply as Diva—under pressure from her label to produce a comeback hit for a concert in the year 2065. Diva is human, or “bio,” at least within the film’s 3D software rendering of the world, yet she’s only able to write her hit with the assistance of an AI that has deep learned pop’s “counterfeit melodies.” Artificial intelligence has become more creative than humanity, even if the outcome is generic, uncanny pop, and Diva achieves immortality by—ironically—surrendering her hyper-star ego and vanishing into the digital cosmos. “This sounds just like everything else,” beams Diva’s ecstatic bosses, who may as well be watching the climactic montage of wallpaper pop hits in Vox Lux. “It’s perfect!”
Is this the pop fiction’s logical endpoint, a Wildean apotheosis of artifice in which cinema and pop have fused in some artificially intelligent, endlessly regenerating nightmare (or utopia)? If the machines of the future can create perfect pop simulations based on deep learning, who’s to say they won’t sift through the debris of human culture and discard the works of Beyoncé, Led Zeppelin, and Britney Spears for an all-new canon drawn from the DNA of Diva, Spın̈al Tap, or Josie and the Pussycats?
After all, as the spectral narrator of Velvet Goldmine reminds us, “Histories, like ancient ruins, are the fictions of empires, while everything forgotten hangs in the dark dreams of the past, ever threatening to return.”


Pop FictionsColumnsTodd HaynesAl JolsenLong ReadsNotebook Primer
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