There might well be something inherent in the warped, pressurized, attention-surplus lifestyle of a pop star that steers you toward embarking on something like The Nowhere Inn. You combine rocket-fuel egophilia with ironic hyper-awareness, and the non-stop need to up your brand, and a movie could result — a movie not even your fans know what to do with. The wazoo we’re exploring here belongs to music artist St. Vincent, who is starring as herself, in a winking blast of narcissism wrapped in satirical anti-narcissism and vice-versa, and thus tapping into deep layers of disingenuousness.
Bone-hard cynicism is the default mode, for the “real” Annie Clark, and for us. Co-written and co-produced by Clark and her “best friend” Carrie Brownstein — who also stars as herself — the film begins in familiar reality show/promo mode, within a documentary they’re ostensibly making about St. V’s life, and a mockumentary about the process. Sisterly and earnest at first, Clark and Brownstein talk about “stripping away the layers,” until a dilemma is faced: Clark’s life isn’t interesting enough to fill out a film. (Which could be true — or not?)
Tiptoeing toward Black Swan and Pink Floyd The Wall, the film hints at emotional fissure, but glibly, treating Clark’s insistent modesty as a kind of inside joke. A prime moment occurs while shooting a magazine interview, when the pushy journalist (Rya Kihlstedt) gets a Dear Jane break-up text from her girlfriend, and then insists Clarke record a message begging for a second chance. Why did you let her do that, Brownstein asks? “I didn’t want her to be mad at me!” Clark whines.
Things change and fall apart: much to Brownstein’s chagrin, Clark rectifies the film’s formlessness by juicing things up (including on-camera romance with Dakota Johnson, as herself). She becomes “St. Vincent,” a pampered, high-handed, controlling star. Because pop stardom is fascist — isn’t it? — her audience adopts her black bob, and even Brownstein’s made to wear the wig. Oddly, the more ironic and inventive the film gets, the more it seems like a pure-bred vanity project. Feints toward emotional breakdown (including lots of fuzzy subjective camerawork) are not to be taken seriously, and therefore land with a plop.
Directed without surprises by Portlandia vet Bill Benz, it’s a film that conjures the ghosts of other, better films — the bullying portrait of annoying fandom even recalls Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories, a corollary any semi-autobio showbiz figure should work hard to avoid. Brady Corbet’s rather amazing Vox Lux also pops to mind, treading the same pop-crisis floorboards with many times the conviction.
Brownstein is the TV-seasoned vet here, even if her persona is merely shrugging bafflement, but Clark, to her credit, is something else: transfixing, glamorous, giga-cool, and ferociously manipulative, whether she’s playing little-old-me or megastar ice queen. The news in 2019 that longtime Sleater-Kinney member Janet Weiss jumped ship after St. Vincent came on as the group’s new producer seems clearer now — you can easily envision the oxygen getting hoovered out of the studio in a flash.
It’d be a mistake to confuse The Nowhere Inn as anything profound — Clark clearly isn’t making a statement about being a mid-tier pop star; she’s just riffing on the navel-gaze music doc genre and on our expectations of how ironic that riffing can get. Maybe it should’ve been “just” a music documentary, or a concert film, given St. Vincent’s flashy stage show. But that would mean being honest about vanity — if not anything else. ❖