Culture

Film

No way in: St. Vincent’s meta-mockumentary ‘The Nowhere Inn’

By Jared Richards

The notoriously guarded artist teams up with Carrie Brownstein for a musician-made documentary that is savvier than most

St. Vincent in The Nowhere Inn

On the first day of directing a documentary about long-term friend Annie Clark, aka rock star St. Vincent, Carrie Brownstein tells an uncertain Clark to “just be yourself”, to which Clark responds by lounging around before soundcheck and playing a Nintendo Switch. It is not the insight Brownstein hopes for: it’s evident in her reaction that she has already mentally cut the footage from her film.

But the scene does feature in The Nowhere Inn, which is not Brownstein’s documentary, but a meta-mockumentary that she and Clark co-wrote, filmed around a US tour of Clark’s fifth solo album, 2017’s Masseduction. In fact, it is directed by Bill Benz, with whom Brownstein previously worked on her absurdist hipster-skewering sketch comedy series Portlandia.

The Nowhere Inn, currently streaming as part of this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival, was originally conceived as a concert documentary with short sketches in between songs, but the project morphed into a meta-fiction closer to Adaptation than This Is Spinal Tap. In an interview with IndieWire, Clark describes how she and Brownstein encountered a “conundrum” while filming, as they realise that Clark’s creative control would compromise the “truth” of the documentary: better to throw out authenticity entirely.

The decision stands out. Since Beyoncé co-directed 2013’s Life Is But A Dream, it is common for artists to executive-produce their own documentaries, which are increasingly released through either Netflix or YouTube – two of the world’s largest streaming services. Taking examples from last year, relatively new artists like Shawn Mendes or K-pop group Blackpink have mythologised their rise before it is even complete. While the artists themselves might want to “tell their story”, they lack the perspective to do so. Instead, these kinds of films insist that wherever the artist finds themself now is the culmination of a project to overcome their creative and personal demons. Ex-Disney star Demi Lovato has released three documentaries since 2012, each time admitting that while the emotional resolutions of the previous film weren’t honest, this time, they are. Fool us once. But they are successful in that the goal of each film isn’t to provide insight into an artist but to act as an extended press packet for the latest album.

Elsewhere, established stars like Lady Gaga or Taylor Swift have used their documentaries (Five Foot Two, Miss Americana) to recontextualise a critically unsuccessful album (Joanne, Reputation), spinning these “failures” as essential personal reckonings. We witness breakdowns and breakups, though nothing the artists did not approve to be released. Still, there is something to be said for what truths sneak in, given the decision to include such scenes.

This phenomenon is not necessarily new, even if the sheer amount of documentaries is. While 1991’s In Bed With Madonna saw the pop-star relinquish control of the final cut, it’s impossible to know if the egotism and tantrums weren’t also a performance. But Madonna has never strived towards relatability: if anything, In Bed outsources the heart of the film to the dancers on her 1990 Blonde Ambition tour, mostly queer men whose lives were so upended by the documentary that 2017’s Strike A Pose revisited them, examining whether Madonna had used them as props.

But where In Bed With Madonna is a rich, multifaceted text, the same cannot be said for Justin Bieber: Seasons, Shawn Mendes: In Wonder or Demi Lovato: Dancing With The Devil. Even while detailing the depersonalising experience of celebrity (and, in Bieber and Lovato’s case, resulting substance abuse), they remain focused on how deeply relatable and normal their subjects are.

This desire appears occasionally in The Nowhere Inn. “I wanted the film to show who I am,” Clark narrates early on, over footage of her dancing and laughing with bandmates, washed over with a faux film-grain. But Brownstein – herself a rock star, as frontwoman of indie-rock group Sleater-Kinney – tells IndieWire that The Nowhere Inn was an escape from the “premium” placed on artists to be likeable. Inspired by Nicolas Roeg’s work with Mick Jagger in Performance and David Bowie in The Man Who Fell To Earth, the duo wrote a script that plays with the conundrum of creative control, and seeks to capture Clark’s artistic essence more than autobiography could.

What follows is a struggle for authorship between “director” and star. Brownstein, worried that the film is too boring, gently suggests Clark lean into her on-stage persona – an intimidating presence that Clark regularly referred to as the “dominatrix at the mental institution” during the Masseduction press cycle, an album of dense, highly strung guitar pop (produced by Lorde and Taylor Swift go-to Jack Antonoff).

Her rock-star antics warp the film itself. It oscillates between concert footage, sketch comedy, true crime-style talking heads and scenes of Brownstein and Clark co-writing the song from which the film takes its name, before its final third becomes a psychological thriller with more than a few nods to Mulholland Drive, as Brownstein loses her sense of self.

Being in control suits Clark, who in real life has struggled with her public narrative. Prior to Masseduction, she attracted tabloid attention thanks to a series of high-profile relationships, including with model Cara Delevingne and actress Kristen Stewart (in The Nowhere Inn, Clark’s on-screen girlfriend is Dakota Johnson, playing a queer version of herself). In 2016, The Daily Mail dug deeper, making public what music blogs of the past decade had never thought fit to publish: that Clark’s father was sentenced to 12 years’ imprisonment in 2010 for stock manipulation totalling $43 million dollars. Even after wryly naming her 2021 album Daddy’s Home, in honour of his early release, Clark remains resistant to discussing her father outside of the music itself.

St. Vincent is a guarded artist, known for difficult interviews. She disavows diaristic interpretation or politicisation of her work, often frustrating critics who struggle to find a hook to their interview. She goes against the culture’s demands of current artists, where their art must react to or comment on sociopolitical issues, and provide a digestible through-line for press. 

But it’s clear, listening to the sitar-filled ’70s rock soundscape of Daddy’s Home, that Clark is uninterested in trends. Early in The Nowhere Inn, Brownstein tells Clark she feels “out of step”, referencing how a TV adaptation of her memoir Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl was abandoned by streaming service Hulu after shooting the pilot. “I do think that the artist’s role, the writer’s role, is to thrash around, to make mistakes, to be out of step. But then when I am, I feel terrible … but philosophically I’m like no, that’s how it should be.”

The Nowhere Inn isn’t out of sync: it is savvier with its steps than most musician-made documentaries. Instead of rushing to perform authenticity, The Nowhere Inn’s only insight into St. Vincent is that she’s talented, funny and self-aware, thus becoming the best kind of PR for an artist who hates PR. Clark indulges her need to self-mythologise with protective layers of irony.

In the early part of the film, when Brownstein is still in control of “making” her documentary, she attempts vox-pops with Clark’s band mates, asking (with increasing exasperation), “What is something interesting about Annie?” “Her music,” says one, before Brownstein asks for something “about her”. All he has is “Her music”. Isn’t that enough?

 

The Nowhere Inn is streaming as part of MIFF Play, until August 22.

Jared Richards

Jared Richards is a film and music critic living on Gadigal land who writes for The Guardian, NME, The Big Issue and more. 

St. Vincent in The Nowhere Inn

Read on

Image of Paul Kelly

Unfinished business

Every Paul Kelly song so far, from worst to best

Image of Laure Calamy as Julie in À plein temps (Full Time), directed by Eric Gravel

Venice International Film Festival 2021 highlights

Films by Eric Gravel, Bogdan George Apetri and Gábor Fabricius are among the stand-outs in a program of unusual abundance

Image of Covid-19 vaccines

Dissent horizon

Why do we object more to mandated vaccination than mandated lockdowns?

Detail of cover image from ‘Nostalgia Has Ruined My Life’, showing a woman’s head resting on a pillow

Living to regret: ‘Nostalgia Has Ruined My Life’

With an exasperating but charming protagonist, Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle’s episodic novella demonstrates faultless comic timing