St. Vincent Checks Into ‘The Nowhere Inn’ for a Surreal Mockumentary

There’s a great deal of acting that can go into a musical performance and persona. For the outside world, who a musician really is can get lost in the character they’ve shaped. “The Nowhere Inn” has surreal fun exploring this dilemma about fame while trailing around with St. Vincent, the art rocker who makes for a perfect subject because of her devotion to privacy. It is easier to make a film about some infamous symbol of debauchery, but much trickier when dealing with a celebrity who evokes seduction and danger onstage, yet in private is happy playing scrabble. This is not a documentary, however, but the latest in a classic mockumentary tradition that can be just as intriguing as the real thing.

St. Vincent is in truth Annie Clark, who we first see riding in the back of a limousine across a vast desert, reading her copy of Maggie Nelson’s “The Art of Cruelty.” The driver has no idea who she is, and when she announces she’s St. Vincent, he still doesn’t know. So begins what is apparently an attempt at making a chronicle of the famous musician by her friend Carrie Brownstein, the “Portlandia” star now undergoing a personal and creative slump. She feels like a failure and making this documentary about the singer might finally bring real fulfillment. Catching something unique on film becomes a challenge because the St. Vincent who scorches concert venues has little resemblance to the rather nerdy, bland Annie Clark we see afterwards on the tour bus. Brownstein is essentially trapped with the possibility her project will be fatally boring. When Clark realizes her hollowness and how she’s perceived as a pushover, she decides to blur the line and become more St. Vincent, to Brownstein’s disturbed confusion.

There’s a quirky sense of joy mixed with the darker surrealism of “The Nowhere Inn.” Much of it owed to how the project feels like it very much belongs to St. Vincent and Brownstein, who both wrote the screenplay. Director Bill Benz is a “Portlandia” veteran and this is his first major feature. He has obviously studied “This Is Spinal Tap,” “A Hard Day’s Night” and David Lynch. The result is a mockumentary and hallucinatory experiment. You don’t even need to be a St. Vincent fan or have listened to the entirety of one of her albums to get immersed into its dark humor and satire. This is not a biography or a celebration. The famous singer of the plot could have easily been made up. But because St. Vincent is a real rock star, she brings a unique sensibility to the story, even as she’s playing herself. With a playful spirit the movie ponders the dilemma of personas. We see St. Vincent onstage, filmed in grainy neon, sporting colorful costumes, her hair slicked back, crooning at an adoring audience. But on the tour bus she’s in a sweater, board games and Brownstein doesn’t know how to make it seem interesting. She’s under a lot of pressure to make something. A touching side note is Brownstein’s father, who is about to begin cancer treatment, and keeps expressing his joy over zoom over a daughter making a movie. 

Is St. Vincent this nice in real life? The beauty of “The Nowhere Inn” is that it feels so authentic we never question it. There’s real awkwardness to moments where Brownstein tries to get the band members together for an edgy group interview, but they’re all so mundane and normal. When a journalist takes advantage of the singer, even asking her to record a message for a girlfriend threatening to break up, Annie Clark gives in, because her St. Vincent attitude is all in illusion. But that’s the attitude Brownstein wants on camera and Clark decides to go for it, taking virtual control of the film by deciding to be St. Vincent all the time. This leads to a series of great mockumentary antics, like Brownstein being called into a room where the singer and her “girlfriend,” Dakota Johnson, sit in lingerie, eager to have sex on camera. Prudish Brownstein wants to close her eyes, this is not what she meant about making the material edgier. Later St. Vincent takes Brownstein to visit her rural Texas family, who eat a big BBQ meal and sing in a capella St. Vincent’s “Year of the Tiger.” Brownstein knows this is not the star’s actual family, so what’s the deal? Is St. Vincent doing this to make the film better or further shape an invented idea of her? 

On one level St. Vincent should be commended for making the effort of collaborating on a real film instead of some regular piece of self-promotion.  With its release delayed a year ago due to the pandemic, “The Nowhere Inn” now arrives soon after the singer released a semi-biographical new album, “Daddy’s Home.” The movie is not promoting any records and the grandiose concert moments never allow an entire song to play out. They are more like jagged, alluring glimpses at the kind of energy St. Vincent conjures onstage. Concert moments are essential because they contrast with Annie Clark, who Brownstein can’t force herself to find compelling enough as a subject. A funny running motif is how Clark differs so much from her musician self, that others don’t recognize her, including the doorman at a venue where she’s about to rehearse. Yet Brownstein is also battling with her own identity. She feels unfulfilled and her relatives are eager to see this epic documentary that she can’t find a way to shape or finish. Expectations can become both a burden and a molder of how we perceive ourselves. Without her film Brownstein will confirm her defeat, which means she also needs St. Vincent, or Annie Clark. 

“The Nowhere Inn” also breaks away from regular mockumentary expectations and becomes more of a surreal dreamscape near the end. Brownstein suggests St. Vincent write a song for the movie, which also opens the door for collaboration since Brownstein is the guitarist of Sleater-Kinney. Later the result will be the film’s sole complete musical number, of St. Vincent performing the song, also titled “The Nowhere Inn,” in a Lynchean sequence where a twin of the singer has a face hidden behind a wig, and Brownstein realizes her own perception of reality is being distorted. Like much of the singer’s own music, “The Nowhere Inn” veers from lucid entertainment to art-pop experimentation. It’s also a charming comedy where we sense St. Vincent making fun of her stage persona being taken much too seriously. In a moving scene a fan confides to her backstage that her music is what kept her from committing suicide after a tragedy. The image an artist constructs can mean a lot to their followers. If they only knew what oddballs their idols can be when away from the spotlight of the stage.

The Nowhere Inn” releases Sept. 17 in select theaters.