“I always had this dream of being a pop star,” says Elle Fanning. Sitting at a corner table at West Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont in a gauzy ivory dress, the 20-year-old actress is so happy to be talking about how her dream finally came true in the new movie Teen Spirit that she lets her mint tea go cold. “That feeling, like I can just let loose and perform, was so attractive.”
In Teen Spirit, Fanning plays Violet Valenski, an introverted but tenacious English teenager who enters a singing competition in the hopes of escaping her dreary home life. Throughout the movie, Fanning sings various pop showpieces, in the end taking the stage in front of a live studio audience to deliver a primal performance of an unexpected song. To anyone familiar with Fanning’s career, her magnetism onscreen is no surprise. Still, watching her as Violet is like witnessing a best new artist Grammy winner at the moment of birth.
Written and directed by first-time filmmaker Max Minghella (perhaps best known as Nick on Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale), Teen Spirit, which LD Entertainment and Bleecker Street will release on April 5, follows Violet from her humble beginnings, half-heartedly singing ballads in a local pub, to the titular televised competition. The role required Fanning not only to cover existing songs like Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own,” but to also record an original track with producer Jack Antonoff, which Fanning calls a “super surreal” experience. “Jack did [Taylor Swift’s] reputation. He recorded [Lorde’s] ‘Green Light,’” she says. “I felt like, ‘Wow -- maybe I am good.’”
Teen Spirit joins a rapidly expanding number of recent movies set within the music industry and led by young female actors who portray not pop personas, but real, complicated women. In the 2018 film Vox Lux, Natalie Portman played a school shooting survivor turned pop diva and sang original tracks written by Sia. Alex Ross Perry’s forthcoming Her Smell stars Elisabeth Moss as a messy, troubled, Courtney Love-style rocker. And then, of course, there’s A Star Is Born’s Ally, a character largely inspired by Lady Gaga herself.
“On some level it’s coincidence,” says Teen Spirit producer Fred Berger of this spate of films (Berger also produced 2016’s La La Land). “But music is one of the most manipulative tools we have. The [film] industry has caught up to the fact that, in an environment where people need an excuse to go to the movies, they want to feel something big.”
Minghella, 33, had long wanted to put a musical spin on the Cinderella story, but he wondered if he “could use the grammar of a music video to create a narrative that feels unconventional.” In order to avoid characters spontaneously, unrealistically bursting into song, Minghella zeroed in on a reality competition that would provide a reason for the singing, and on tunes that would lyrically reflect Violet’s trajectory.
“The responsibility of the music is to inform character and plot,” he says. “I hope the songs achieve that without feeling too on the nose.” Early on, Violet performs Tegan & Sara’s poignant “I Was a Fool” for a pub full of old men who would probably prefer a beery rendition of “Danny Boy.” Frustrated, she later flails around her bedroom to No Doubt’s “Just a Girl.” When she appears before the competition’s judges, she belts out Ellie Goulding’s “Lights” -- “So I tell myself that I’ll be strong/And dreaming when they’re gone.” As she advances, she performs an affecting version of Annie Lennox’s 1992 “Little Bird” (originally intended to be “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” before the creative team decided Violet was probably too moody for the Cyndi Lauper hit).
Minghella’s song choices were deliberate: The soundtrack almost exclusively features tracks performed and/or written by female artists, including Grimes, Ariana Grande and Katy Perry. “If you look at my iPod, you wouldn’t find a ton of male songwriters,” he says. “I so overtly identify with female characters, I should probably see a psychoanalyst.” (Fanning jokes: “Max is a complete pop whore.”)
Most of those musical cues were in the script from the beginning -- getting clearances for them is one reason why it took nearly 10 years to get Teen Spirit to the big screen. It wasn’t until 2015, after Minghella joined forces with the production team behind La La Land and Interscope Records (which released the soundtrack to the Academy Award-winning movie, as well as Robyn’s 2010 album, Body Talk), that Teen Spirit was officially greenlit. It’s Interscope’s first foray into film production in over a decade.
“Interscope was a big help,” says music supervisor Steven Gizicki. “These are not small songs. ‘Dancing on My Own’ had a second life because of [HBO’s] Girls, so Robyn was a bit afraid of being overexposed.” In the end, Minghella’s tasteful and assured vision convinced Berger: “He wasn’t going to pervert the music into a jukebox movie.”
Finding a star who could believably perform those songs turned out to be the real obstacle. Initially, Minghella wanted the story to unfold in Poland with an unknown actor at the helm, but casting, he says, became “a fucking nightmare.” He relocated the story to his native Isle of Wight, where Violet runs a farm with her Polish immigrant mother and enlists a former opera singer as her manager.
Minghella -- the son of the late British director Anthony and Hong Kong-born choreographer Carolyn Choa -- felt strongly that Violet’s biography would make her a more relatable artist. “People are really responding to authenticity now, maybe as a consequence of reality TV and social media,” he says. “I wanted it to be very clear that Violet is not a polished, American Girl doll version of a pop star. There is a lack of vanity to her that is intrinsic to who she is.”
While he insists that his protagonist isn’t based on anyone, Violet’s background brings to mind Dua Lipa, the Albanian-British singer-songwriter who spent her adolescence in Kosovo and won the best new artist Grammy in February, declaring in her acceptance speech that “no matter where you’re from, or your background or what you believe in, never let that get in the way of you and your dreams.”
“I was one of the first people on the Dua Lipa train,” says Minghella.
By the time Teen Spirit was announced in early 2017, Minghella still didn’t have his star. Meanwhile, Fanning had been looking for a part that would showcase her voice, much as Anna Kendrick did with Pitch Perfect. “People know me mostly from Maleficent,” she says, referring to the 2014 Disney film co-starring Angelina Jolie, though she arguably has distinguished herself more in indie fare like Somewhere and 20th Century Women. “Max never thought of me.” Her team reached out to Minghella with Fanning’s sparse musical résumé: In 2016, she had joined her friend, the neo-folk musician Woodkid, onstage at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland for a rendition of his “Never Let You Down.”
Music producer Marius de Vries, who worked with Emma Stone on La La Land, would later point out to Fanning all the things she did wrong during that performance. “He was like, ‘Look at this posture,’” she recalls, laughing. “I’m totally concave and, like, scared.” Nonetheless, after meeting with him and Minghella, she scored the part. “Her voice was very charismatic,” says de Vries. (“If there were 100 people in the room, Marius was my one,” jokes Fanning, quoting Lady Gaga’s infamous A Star Is Born press tour soundbite.) But, he adds, “we both realized we had a lot of work to do if she was going to sing this repertoire.”
Fanning and de Vries rehearsed together for four months. She watched the documentaries that had inspired Minghella, including Katy Perry: Part of Me and Gaga: Five Foot Two, while the producer took her to a Björk show in Los Angeles to observe “unusual approaches to vocalization.” Every day de Vries recorded Fanning, then made her listen to herself so she could work on breath control and stamina. The process was different from rehearsing with Stone, he explains, because La La Land was a proper musical: “The emphasis with Emma was to get her not to perform, but to inhabit the music, whereas Elle is selling the songs.”
For Fanning, vocal training was only one part of prepping the role -- she also had to ensure the audience could hear Violet’s steady progress from an audition in her school gymnasium to the televised competition in London. “Her greenness is what’s intriguing about her,” says Fanning. “I wanted to sing really well as Elle, but as Violet, I was not professional.”
The following spoiler has been well-publicized, but consider yourself warned: Violet wins, besting slicker acts, so her final performance was crucial -- yet it was the only musical cue missing from the original script. Minghella had assumed the big closer should be a ballad, and he favored Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work.” But “it became clear that no matter how amazing Elle is, it would always be a Kate Bush song,” says Gizicki.
One night, Minghella was collapsed on the couch in his L.A. home when “Don’t Kill My Vibe” by the Norwegian singer-songwriter Sigrid came on the radio. It was a eureka moment. “It’s not a pretty ballad; it’s a very aggressive and almost angry anthem,” he says. “And I thought that would actually resonate the most in this climate.” The response from his team was unanimous: Sigrid’s electro-pop kiss-off was a perfect fit for Violet, and unexpected enough that Fanning could put her stamp on it.
Prior to that moment, Fanning had interacted with the pop landscape primarily as a fan. Through her older sister Dakota, she had met Perry a few times; she once presented Selena Gomez, a friend, with a Billboard Music Award; and, she says, she occasionally slides into Lorde’s Instagram DMs, though they’ve never met in person. “I was very nervous,” she recalls. “I knew I had to kill it.”
The shoot for the scene lasted 12 hours, with Fanning performing “Don’t Kill My Vibe” at least 30 times. The result feels more cathartic than choreographed: Dressed in a modest red tracksuit, a smear of turquoise eye shadow across her lids, she grabs the mic and swaggers across the stage with limber confidence. “That’s how I dance in my room,” says Fanning. “The best performers get lost in themselves. You feel like there’s no barrier between you and them. They know people are watching, but they’re just in it.”
The crew was stunned, even de Vries, who had watched countless rehearsals. “No one expected her to do what she did,” he says. “Something just possessed her.” Fanning grins proudly, recalling the moment. “There’s a lot of me in Violet, which people wouldn’t expect,” she says. “When we were practicing, I would never do it full out until I needed to.”
Now Minghella just needed to find the original song that would represent Violet’s first hit, to play over the film’s end credits. He unsuccessfully had waded through approximately 500 demos by various songwriters before Antonoff saw a rough cut of Teen Spirit and came to the rescue. “I wanted it to be the kind of song you hear once and download immediately,” says Minghella. Antonoff offered him “Wildflowers,” an unreleased song he had written with Carly Rae Jepsen. “He played it to me over his phone, but instantly I could sing the chorus,” recalls Minghella.
“The song is about breaking free from a bad relationship,” says Jepsen. “I had looked to place it on my last album [Emotion], but it never quite fit. I love Elle singing this -- she gave new meaning to it.”
In the end, says Minghella, “Violet is a distinct artist, which is what I wanted.” Whether the rest of the world will perceive her as such remains to be seen (before its wider release, Teen Spirit will screen at South by Southwest on March 12). Fanning, for her part, still seems a little in disbelief. “Like, ‘Wildflowers’ is going to be a single that’s coming out,” she says, shaking her head. “That’s a rush.” But she’s ready for the world to hear Violet’s voice -- and her own. “Doing Teen Spirit feels like it opened doors to this whole other land for me,” she says with a smile. “I feel like if I wanted to do an album now, maybe I could.”