The Nowhere Inn is a musical-thriller-comedy disguised as a documentary. It stars Annie Clark, a.k.a. St. Vincent, playing a character based on Annie Clark, a.k.a. St. Vincent. The Dallas native cowrote the film with her best friend, Carrie Brownstein (of Sleater-Kinney and Portlandia fame), and Brownstein also costars in the movie—playing a character based on Carrie Brownstein, who is making a documentary about her best friend, Annie Clark, a.k.a. St. Vincent. Except that Brownstein did not actually direct this fictional meta-movie about the making of her nonexistent rock doc.
Got all that?
The film, which premiered with a midnight screening at the Sundance Film Festival and will next screen at SXSW, is a meditation on art, autobiography, and persona, as well as fan, media, and social media perception. (Clark and Brownstein will also be keynote speakers at SXSW this year). It’s the latest in a series of collaborations between the two musicians, including the most recent Sleater-Kinney album (which Clark produced), as well as the “interview kit” that preceded St. Vincent’s 2017 album Massseduction.
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The plot of Nowhere Inn, which was directed by Bill Benz (Portlandia, Kroll Show), is simple: St. Vincent hires her BFF “CB” to make a tour movie. But (as the real Brownstein obviously knows) it turns out touring is mostly boring: isolation, bus rides, disassociation, waiting. Clark seems to spend most of her downtime sleeping, working out, and eating healthily—necessary evils and necessary preparation for those two electric hours onstage nightly.
Brownstein’s character, who is dealing with her own personal and professional issues, pushes for better material. Clark pushes back. Then things take a turn. Making the movie tests their friendship, while also raising questions about what, and who, is and isn’t real (both philosophically and within the film’s narrative logic).
Walking out of the press and industry screening at Sundance, my first reaction was “a long episode of The Twilight Zone,” while my friend (and many critics) just went with the Portlandia comparison. Another easy analogue would be Fred Armisen and Bill Hader’s Documentary Now!, though The Nowhere Inn is not an homage to or satire on any particular real-life rock doc. It’s its own thing.
During an extended Q&A session in Utah, Brownstein and Clark cited the likes of Nicolas Roeg (who directed Mick Jagger in Performance and David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth) and the British faux-cumentary Privilege, a 1967 cult classic that is perhaps best known for Patti Smith reworking one of its songs onto her album Easter. Also cited as an influence was Ingmar Bergman’s Persona and Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover. The Nowhere Inn is a dark and sumptuous film, but it doesn’t reach the same level of intensity or weirdness as some of the films Clark and Brownstein cited, and it’s so self-aware of its meta nature that it’s hard to actually lose yourself inside the movie.
It’s more a comedy than anything else, which, at the panel, led to much discussion about whether St. Vincent’s music, and Clark herself, are funny. (It is and she is, though she blushed when Brownstein told her so—at first sincerely, and then with some exaggeration.) She’s very funny in the film, mocking her own perceived aloofness, the fake rapport one has to have with journalists, and, of course, her dating history with other famous people. If you look on IMDB at who is in the movie (or read other articles about it) you will encounter a spoiler, but it would be a lot cooler if you didn’t.
The film Hoovers up a lot of other aspects of Clark’s life, or, rather, the media coverage of her life, including the fact that her father is in prison, which was first “revealed” by the Daily Mail when she was dating supermodel Cara Delevingne (“The female ‘Bowie’ who saved Cara…,” read the shameless tabloid’s headline). Clark’s real-life family (she has eight siblings or step-siblings, as well as ten aunts and uncles on her father’s side) is also fictionalized in a hilarious, Texas-corny set piece, complete with cows, a farmhouse, and pecan pie, all set to a brilliantly countrified version of her song “Year of the Tiger.” The film’s title song, which Clark and Brownstein wrote together, is also great, but overall, The Nowhere Inn actually could use more music. The snippets of concert footage, while numerous, aren’t satisfying.
Bottom line, if you love St. Vincent, you’re going to want to see The Nowhere Inn. If you think that St. Vincent is just okay, it’s probably not for you. But it’s also weird enough and funny enough, and the music good enough, that it could be an entry point into Clark’s work if you’re not familiar with it at all. (It would be a bit like watching HBO’s recent Watchmen without any knowledge of the source material. There’s bound to be some things that don’t make sense, but the confusion kind of works.)
What was clear from the Sundance panel, even more than from the movie, is how real the bond between Clark and Brownstein is. That part wasn’t acting (or was it?). A bit of Texas trivia: the two women met when Sleater-Kinney and the Polyphonic Spree—yes, Clark played guitar and sang in the Dallas choral alt-rock band—both played SXSW in 2006, though they didn’t become close until a few years later. It has frequently been mentioned that they dated, especially in the press about that Sleater-Kinney record, but regardless of what their relationship was, is, or gets labeled as, it’s a deep creative partnership. They clearly just dig each other as both people and artists. They also finish each other’s sentences and set up each other’s jokes.
During the panel, the two women also talked about the difference between playing music and acting.
“You can go from music to acting,” Clark said. “You cannot go from acting to music!”
“Yes,” Brownstein agreed.
“I don’t know why,” Clark continued. “It doesn’t work.”
But Clark knows exactly why: actors pretend, and we accept that, whereas we like to tell ourselves that songwriters aren’t pretending. We want authentic (and when it comes to women, as they also noted on the panel, relatable). In its own way, Nowhere Inn is to St. Vincent as Springsteen on Broadway was to Bruce Springsteen. Both artists wanted to make a particular artistic statement and tell a particular story using something other than just music. Yet while the Boss’s style is perceived as direct, plainspoken, and honest, he was shaping his “authentic” life story just as surely as Clark shapes her meta life story. Which is no less authentic or relatable.