The film genre usually boils down to two different types: sanitized “peeks” into an artist’s personal life — inevitably and regrettably gatekept by those same artists (see Katy Perry's Part of Me) or unnecessarily unfiltered portraits of raging egomaniacs (such as Madonna’s Truth or Dare). Most music films that end up giving viewers an actual glimpse into an artist’s life are some combination of both. The Song Remains the Same helped document Led Zeppelin's legacy, as The Last Waltz did for The Band.
It’s an interesting dilemma because the point of a documentary is to ultimately shed light on a subject’s inner workings or reveal lesser-known truths that the public is interested in consuming. Contrast that with a narrative film, where the interesting part is not necessarily a subject or topic, but rather a problem that a relatable character must overcome.
In an instance of high ambition, Dallas’ own Annie Clark, aka St. Vincent, has made her first foray into both, funneling the undeniably tricky world of making a music film into the playground of a narrative feature.
The premise is simple and captivating: Clark, in an attempt to make an “authentic” documentary that shows people “who she really is,” asks her friend Carrie Brownstein (from Sleater-Kinney and TV’s Portlandia) to direct. The line between authenticity and stardom starts to blur, as does reality and logic.
To call The Nowhere Inn “Lynchian” would be like saying St. Vincent probably likes David Bowie. The Nowhere Inn is no Mulholland Drive, but it certainly opens up a lot of interesting philosophical concepts that are better explored by those watching the film than by the film itself. It’s undoubtedly one of the most original music films ever, in the sense that it escapes the trappings that nearly all conventional concert films and rockumentaries face. However, the film’s ultimate point is one of mystery.
The documentaries that successfully do reveal the "real person" behind the façade tend to be boring because the real person is seldom the interesting part of an artist’s schtick, and the ones that illuminate the mythological aspect of a performer tend to come across as egocentric. It’s a tricky balance, but The Nowhere Inn is more preoccupied with the distortion of the information, like they're making a papier-mâché goose out of a newspaper as opposed to printing accurate news.
There’s an amusing stretch of the film in which Brownstein interviews members of Clark’s band and entourage, asking the question: “What’s interesting about Annie?” The interviewees to either draw a blank or say simply, “Her music.” The film’s crux is the chasm between Annie Clark, the normal person, and “St. Vincent,” the onstage persona she projects, screams and sweats out toward her audience.
Effectively, the film points out the uncomfortable truth that the people who make music are almost always far less interesting than the music they make or the onstage versions of themselves.
The dichotomy of a “rock star” is a tricky thing. If a run-of-the-mill musician doesn’t want to take a picture or sign an autograph, they’re ungrateful. But if it’s a “rock star” turning down such requests, they’re unflinchingly honest.
“Let’s only document things I can control,” Clark says after an attempt to control an otherwise uncontrollable emotional dynamic gone wrong. Of course, when the uncontrollable does happen, that’s when the movie shines.
In the film’s most captivating scene, Brownstein invites a fan named Kim backstage for the purpose of filming an interaction between her and St. Vincent. Kim gets emotional, telling Clark that her boyfriend, who died in a car crash, bought her a copy of the album Strange Mercy, and that Clark’s music “saved her life.” It’s an exchange that many fans wish they could have with their heroes, and in an incredible twist, Clark breaks down herself upon hearing this, and Kim is left to comfort her hero.
This extraordinarily intimate dynamic is seldom explored in any kind of music film. Usually, fan interaction is en masse, outside the venue after a show, or in a crowd by a tour bus, and while The Nowhere Inn includes that too, this interaction is the only time when the “mythical” St. Vincent is humbled by her own creation, revealing the vulnerable — and actually real — Annie Clark.
It’s a shame that the rest of the movie is a baffling haunted house ride through the battle between Brownstein’s desire to coax something interesting from the otherwise "banal" Clark, and the monstrously (and occasionally comically) "egotistical" St. Vincent. If that weren’t enough, there are Lynchian lapses about what is real and what is not.
“I can’t make a documentary about someone who won’t let me in,” Brownstein tells Clark via a lipstick message on a backstage mirror. It’s a moment of brilliance, as it points out the reason we seek out further information, akin to that old Hitchcock postulate that “there’s nothing more terrifying than an unopened door.”
The Nowhere Inn is not preoccupied with telegraphing any truth about St. Vincent or Annie Clark as a person, instead using both her onstage persona and her real person as characters.
A perfect example of a music documentary revealing just enough about a subject while still scuttling what we know to make the subject even more fascinating is Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Thunder Revue, about Bob Dylan’s legendary 1975 tour of the same name. While viewers are given an intimate peek behind the curtain to Dylan and co.’s inner workings, enough information is withheld (and even intentionally obscured) to make Dylan even more enigmatic by the film’s end.
Thankfully, The Nowhere Inn is not actually a music documentary but a psychedelic narrative film. Its unorthodoxy is both its greatest asset and its biggest detraction. Its oblique need to go beyond a “sensory experience” is thrilling. Unfortunately, sometimes the movie feels like it doesn’t follow any internal logic, particularly in its home stretch. The Nowhere Inn’s lapses into surrealism occur too quickly and too early in the film for them to feel like any kind of unraveling.
The third act is when the movie goes enjoyably bonkers, ironically when the surrealist element thaws away for a bit. When it returns, it does with a vengeance, and the movie slips completely from the audience’s control. Once Brownstien is submerged in Clark’s delusion (or vice versa) is when the film’s humor really shines (as in the film’s funniest scene, set in Clark’s “home” in Texas). It goes off the rails for just long enough to cause you to grab your hair, and the next moment it drops you back into reality.
Even more frustratingly, the film’s most clever and defining moment may be its post-credits scene, which will likely not be watched by audiences who have gone through a sensory overload.
The Nowhere Inn is not preoccupied with telegraphing any truth about St. Vincent or Annie Clark, instead using both her onstage persona and her real person as characters while exploring the concept of perception. The movie ultimately succeeds because it jumbles our notion of who either Annie Clark or St. Vincent really are, and that what you create ultimately defines you.