By Ilana Kaplan
This past year has delivered a bevy of female musician narratives with A Star Is Born’s Ally (Lady Gaga), Vox Lux’s Celeste (Natalie Portman) and Her Smell’s Becky Something (Elisabeth Moss). Now there’s another character to be added to the queue care of Teen Spirit’s Violet (Elle Fanning).
In Max Minghella’s directorial debut, Fanning portrays a lonely, aspiring singer living on a farm with her mother in the Isle of Wight, England. In between waiting tables and going to school, she spends her free time with her horse and singing at open mic nights. Everything changes for her when Vlad (Zlatko Buric), a former opera singer, takes on the role of her manager and coach, helping her compete for an American Idol-like TV series called Teen Spirit. Viewers get to see the growth of Violet as a vocalist as she pursues her dream.
Like Portman and Moss, Fanning is not known for her vocals — solely her acting. Though Teen Spirit proves that Fanning’s talents are multidimensional, she still needed to prepare for her role as a pop star — to a degree. The key to nailing the part of Violet was showing her as a growing artist. “She’s not particularly a polished pop star yet,” Fanning explained in a phone interview. “She’s a growing performer and since you shoot the movie out of water, it was something that we really had to think about when I was performing to make sure that I was not doing too much, and making sure I was doing enough.” To help ensure Fanning was improving, she went to the apartment of the film’s executive music producer, Marius de Vries, each day to record videos of her singing all of the songs each day. “I had to listen back and watch myself to see how I could improve my performance,” she recalled.
In addition to refining her vocals, Fanning, who’s American, needed to learn Polish and refine an English accent, which she worked on with coaches. While Fanning had done English accents before, she had lower her voice to imitate one from Isle of Wight.
“We were looking for someone who could sing brilliantly, be able to retain and perform complicated choreography, speak with a British accent, learn Polish, ride a horse, and carry every frame of the film,” Minghella said of Violet’s character. “It was a near-impossible list of requirements and I don’t know if there’s another living soul who has the faculties to pull this movie off.”
With the role of Violet, Fanning tried to envision what kind of pop star she would be, by listening to and watching YouTube clips of pop artists she thought Violet would admire: Katy Perry and Taylor Swift. Before she arrived on set, Perry came to lunch during filming, which Fanning unfortunately missed.
What she found in Violet’s story, though, were parallels to Dua Lipa’s ascension. She even ended up going to one of her shows with de Vries to help her with the role. On a personal level, Fanning drew from her first concert: Gwen Stefani. But Fanning knew that Violet ultimately needed to be her own star.
“I mostly just had the songs that I was given, and it was Marius and I that worked together to form [the character]. I didn’t get to talk to anybody,” she said.
Violet’s potential for pop stardom is documented throughout the movie, but perhaps even better told throughout the film’s riveting soundtrack, which features Fanning covering an array of some of the buzziest songs in pop music, including Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own,” Sigrid’s “Don’t Kill My Vibe,” and Ellie Goulding’s “Lights.” “Max is obsessed with music and has a real affection for pop, so we came into the project with a script full of songs that Max loved,” said Tony Seyler, Interscope Executive VP of Film/TV Marketing and Licensing. Most of the soundtrack is comprised of live songs from the film, but some were re-recorded to sound more polished.
Minghella always saw Antonoff as a hero and never believed he’d be able to work with him on the original song. “We met up at a diner in Toronto to talk about the movie and he played me a rough demo of ‘Wildflowers,’” he said. “After the first verse I was already singing along. Jack then worked with Elle to really embody the song with the energy of the character.”
To say Fanning was thrilled to work with Antonoff was an understatement. “I got to experience Jack in the studio, and watch him work exactly where he was working on Lorde and Lana Del Rey’s album and all of these musicians I love. He’s such a genius,” Fanning said. She’s even in shock now when she sees her name come up as an artist on Spotify and Apple Music. “It’s kind of mind-boggling,” she admits.
While Fanning had several performances throughout Teen Spirit, the most impactful was her final number, when she covered Sigrid’s “Don’t Kill My Vibe.”
“It was my last performance, it was the song that I knew the least because it was chosen late in the game, so I didn’t get to practice that one as much as all the rest,” she recalled. “And I knew it was going to be a super crucial moment in Violet’s journey.”
The performance featured a pivotal moment for Violet, her finally having this outcry or angry roar. “It was for Violet, but I also realize it was for me, Elle,” she said.
Fanning feels differently about Teen Spirit than her other work, which is due in part to her singing being highlighted. “Putting the songs out and even just putting this movie out is very vulnerable,” she said. “Singing, there’s something about it that just makes you feel very raw and very seen.”
With Fanning revealing she’s an accomplished singer as well as an actress, it begs the question: Will she release an album of her own? “I think this movie opened up this door,” she said. “I don’t know if my music would be exactly like Violet’s music. But I would be open to that.”