There is a long, rich history of musicians and pop stars expanding into feature films, and they range from simple concert recordings to elaborate arthouse dramas and from the sublimely powerful to the patently ridiculous. It’s arguably an under-appreciated form of cinema, because while one can recoil from the likes of From Justin to Kelly and S-Club Seeing Double (both 2003) they can also marvel at the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night (1964), Pink Floyd’s The Wall (1982), and Pet Shop Boys’ It Couldn’t Happen Here (1987).
The Nowhere Inn, a surreal 2020 mockumentary, is written by and stars Annie Clark and Carrie Brownstein. Clark famously performs on-stage as pop star St Vincent, following tenures in both the Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens’ touring band. Brownstein has balanced her career between rock trio Sleater-Kinney and writing and performing comedy on Saturday Night Live and in Portlandia. The film is directed by Bill Benz, making his feature debut.
What begins with Brownstein documenting a St Vincent tour soon begins to degenerate and crumble as Clark starts to worry her real off-stage persona will be perceived by an audience already familiar with her aggressively sexualised on-stage alter-ego. As both women struggle over the creative direction of their work, Clark begins to struggle differentiating herself from St Vincent and reality from fiction.
I feel it is important to first acknowledge how funny The Nowhere Inn is. Yes it is a thoughtful and surprisingly complex work, and yes it has artistic pretensions beyond making an audience laugh, but it is also a wonderful combination of comedic dialogue, pointed satire, and pitch-perfect awkward pauses. Brownstein has already demonstrated wonderful comedic skills, and it turns out Clark is just as funny. She punctures and parodies her finely-tuned stage persona with aplomb. A small supporting appearance by 50 Shades of Gray star Dakota Johnson is superb.
The film raises some significant questions about rock documentaries in general. Even when captured live and off-the-cuff both off and on-stage, someone still chooses what to shoot, where to point the camera, which scenes to include and which to cut. On-screen subjects know they are being filmed, and cannot help but moderate their behaviour. The Nowhere Inn is openly fictional, but even if it was as dry a documentary as could be imagined it still wouldn’t give a full and accurate impression of the “real” Annie Clark or Carrie Brownstein. Those identities live away from the observer. That in mind, it feels that The Nowhere Inn – by embracing fiction – is a more insightful showcase of her artistic sensibilities than a non-fiction film could ever be.
But really The Nowhere Inn is also just a great rock music comedy.
The Nowhere Inn is streaming at the Melbourne International Film Festival until Sunday. Click here for more information.