Carrie Brownstein and Annie Clark know about rock documentaries. How could they not? Brownstein has spent the better part of 30 years singing and playing guitar, most famously in the seminal American rock band Sleater-Kinney, while Clark gigged and recorded with a variety of acts before beginning her solo career as St. Vincent about fifteen years ago. They must understand the fans-only tedium of so many rock docs (and the self-inflated routine of so many biopics), as surely as they understand the cliché of writing songs about the alienation of touring.
That’s exactly the kind of song Clark suggests writing at one point during The Nowhere Inn, a fiction movie about a rock doc that doesn’t come together. (Before you try to parse that last clause: Neither. Neither the on-screen doc nor the movie we’re watching comes together.) Brownstein, playing herself, is directing a film about St. Vincent, touring her 2017 record Masseduction, and the two friends have decided to make a song together for the movie. Clark, portrayed at this point as sort of a guileless nerd who fails to provide much off-screen drama, brings up multiple broad themes, only for Brownstein to shoot them down; after vetoing “the alienation of touring,” she also nixes “heartbreak” and vagaries about the “well of sorrow from childhood.”
It’s not the first frustration experienced by this fictionalized version of Brownstein, but it is the funniest—a too-rare instance of The Nowhere Inn making deadpan cringe comedy out of the impulse to create and collaborate. Brownstein and Clark wrote and produced this movie (with Bill Benz, who has worked on Brownstein’s sketch comedy show Portlandia, directing), and they seem to understand the navel-gazing that can result when profiling an artist whose work is fascinating but whose off-stage personality may not be—at least not by the standards of a satisfying dramatic arc. This can be especially pronounced in the rarified yet undignified world of indie-rock stardom. In the first scene, Clark rides in a limo with a driver who doesn’t know who she is, yet demands to get to the bottom of it, asking her to sing one of her songs. A few hurried bars of “New York,” a choice Masseduction cut, do nothing for him. “Don’t worry,” he says, “we’ll find out who you are”—a statement that’s probably supposed to become freighted with significance and menace later on, but feels immediately like a self-conscious mission statement.
At first, Clark comes across as relentlessly normal, in stark contrast to the practiced archness of her stage banter (or at least, that was what she trafficked in circa 2014, when she was touring her self-titled St. Vincent record) and her elaborate on-stage costuming. When members of her crew are asked to offer something interesting about her, more than one tries to get away with saying “her music.” The movie’s Brownstein claims to want to capture the “real” Clark, without injecting artificial drama, but it doesn’t take much surveilling of her friend’s workout routine and handheld videogame habit before she decides maybe she needs to take a stronger hand in shaping this movie after all. Soon she’s gently goading Clark into giving her more, even if it’s not strictly verité. As Brownstein’s goals shift, so does the movie’s portrayal of Clark; soon The Nowhere Inn is spoofing her mild reputation for dating Hollywood starlets (Dakota Johnson does an obliging two-scene cameo) and her “impenetrable and aloof” image. She hires an unwanted assistant for Brownstein. She stages a down-home family gathering in Texas. She breaks poor Dakota Johnson’s heart.
A few of these passages, like that family reunion—Clark really did grow up in Texas with a large blended family, though I don’t know if they’re playing themselves here—hint at off-kilter music videos. The movie’s offhand assemblage of songs is beguiling, maybe because Clark’s body of work is so terrific: A family singalong version of “Year of the Tiger,” concert footage of “Fear the Future” interrupted by a laptop slammed shut, those hurried bars of “New York” in the limo. More bits like this might have added up to an unusual concert film. But the movie seems to be after something trippier, more ambitious and less musical, and that’s the part that doesn’t ultimately cohere.
Despite Brownstein’s experience as star and architect of Portlandia, and both musicians’ ample stage time, neither of their performing styles fully gel for whatever type of movie this is supposed to be; they don’t overact and they’re playing versions of themselves, but somehow both still come off as amateurish. Early on, the self-deprecating stuff takes on a studied air, and in the final stretch, the filmmakers seem to think they can shock-cut and rug-pull their way into something resembling psychological horror. The weirdness isn’t really weird enough to pull this off; it’s all the self-indulgence without much oddball pleasure. Maybe that’s supposed to be the point, to be located somewhere within Brownstein and Clark’s hall of mirrors. But anyone as smart and savvy as these two ought to know that at some point, even fans might give up and quit looking.
The song that plays over the credits, however, is excellent.
Director: Bill Benz
Writers: Annie Clark, Carrie Brownstein
Starring: Annie Clark, Carrie Brownstein, Dakota Johnson
Release Date: September 17, 2021
Jesse Hassenger writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including The A.V. Club, Polygon, The Week, NME, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching, listening to, or eating.