Being a rock star can be tricky, especially when you don’t really think of yourself as one. Annie Clark, d.b.a. St. Vincent, certainly looks the part on stage – her hair slicked back, wearing outfits Jean Paul Gaultier might have dreamed up during a 1970s space phase, and most importantly, singing intensely and playing an electric guitar. But to wind down from a show she just wants to play Scrabble and maybe eat some radishes, which is actually a taste preference rather than a dietary accompaniment to her daily regimen of ab exercises. When her bandmates are asked what’s most interesting about her, they struggle to produce an answer.
That rock stars are sometimes incredibly boring is the premise of The Nowhere Inn, a hybrid of the rock mockumentary, the movie about making movies, and something far more existential and experimental. Clark is playing a fictionalised version of herself, an off-stage personality so unassuming that people repeatedly tell her that they haven’t heard of her – even the stage name she is reluctant to go by – and she’s denied admittance to the tech rehearsals for her very own show.
Annie does want to make a documentary to better acquaint her fans with her, and she’s chosen her best friend, Carrie Brownstein, to direct it. Brownstein herself is a rock star, a member of the band Sleater-Kinney, but her recent work has been in comedy, such as the skit show Portlandia. This fictionalised version of Brownstein wants directing to be the next phase of her career, but she’s got a dilemma: her best friend is just too mundane of a personality for a rock documentary. The footage they’ve gotten is flat.
When Annie gets wind of Carrie’s concerns – Carrie talks about “enhancing” Annie’s off-stage persona so it’s more like her on-stage persona – it starts Annie out on a strange journey of self-discovery, not to mention self-loathing. First she affects a more performative version of the things she actually thinks and feels, which she usually keeps to herself. But then she starts to devolve into ever greater states of artifice, until there’s little recognisable left of Annie, or of the friendship.
The Nowhere Inn is one of those films where any number of its themes could dominate the limited word count of a shortish review. It’s a rich text that’s got all sorts of different agendas. At the most surface level, it’s teasing the basic structure of the rock documentary, which alternates concert footage with supposedly “real” behind-the-scenes glimpses into what the performer is “really” like. It’s a gentle parody, as both Clark and Brownstein recognise the value of this form. But it goes quickly into what it means to be so very different from your on-stage persona, whether that’s a kind of lying to your fans, and what damage it could do to your brand if you expose the difference to them. There’s no easy way to fix this.
The day-to-day indignities that befall Annie immediately allow us to identify with her – assuming “us” is a disinterested audience not familiar with St. Vincent, since her actual fan base may be looking for something very different. She’s damned if she does, she’s damned if she doesn’t, as evidenced by her overhearing a loathsome journalist badmouthing her after Annie got her an extra ticket to her show, against her better judgement considering that loathsome behaviour. If The Nowhere Inn were only this, were only Brownstein’s fascinating balancing act between making a good film and being kind to her friend, it would be plenty delightful and insightful.
But the co-stars, who also function as writers, and their director, Bill Benz, have something far more absurd in mind for the second half of the film. The Nowhere Inn descends into Dadaism as Annie undergoes some kind of psychotic break from her real personality. The visualisations of this descent might even recall David Lynch. (Or, one of the more gonzo sketches Brownstein might have performed with Fred Armisen on Portlandia.) While this section has a loopy strangeness that will speak to yet another potential audience, it may be a tad alienating to the audience described in the previous paragraph – and therefore may be two steps removed from an audience that just wants to see a rock documentary about St. Vincent.
Cinephiles, who might appropriately be described as the audience for any movie, shouldn’t want The Nowhere Inn to be even a smidgen less ambitious. The layers of meta are more rewarding than alienating. The themes considered here – authenticity, artistic intent, friendship, fame – are too complicated to be properly tackled through a single, clean approach. Clark’s and Brownstein’s concerns, which likely spun out of a real attempt to make a documentary about St. Vincent, have given us something far more memorable, distinctive and ultimately thrilling.
The Nowhere Inn is available for streaming rental through MIFF streaming until 22 August.