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Why Can’t Rock Stars Stop Making Movies About How Much Being A Rock Star Sucks?

‘The Nowhere Inn’ is just the latest film in which a musician wants us to know that their life isn’t as great as it seems

Today, IFC releases The Nowhere Inn, a meta-fiction film that purports to follow Sleater-Kinney musician (and Portlandia star) Carrie Brownstein as she makes a documentary about her best friend Annie Clark (better known as St. Vincent) going on tour to promote 2017’s Masseduction. Both women play themselves — or, rather versions of themselves — and just as The Nowhere Inn gets more Lynchian in its weirdness, so too does Brownstein and Clark’s relationship start to become strained and warped. Brownstein worries that Clark’s offstage demeanor is too bland in comparison to her dynamic St. Vincent persona — maybe she can try to be more, y’know, interesting? — which sets in motion a hall-of-mirrors study of identity and celebrity.

Clark, who wrote The Nowhere Inn with Brownstein, has described the movie as “a rumination on the hilarity and pitfalls of the idea of ‘rock star,’” and for all of us who aren’t rock stars, the movie certainly doesn’t make the gig look inviting. Sure, you’re rich and famous, but mostly you have to deal with obnoxious journalists, constant fears that you’re disappointing your fans and the imminent loss of your sanity. Combining actual footage from her Masseduction tour with scripted sequences — and directed by Portlandia vet Bill Benz — this dark-comedy-cum-headtrip odyssey suggests that, as fun as making music for a living might be, the job can also really suck.

This is hardly the first music film to make this argument — in fact, it’s part of a proud tradition of “being a rock star sucks” movies. Sometimes, these films were documentaries crafted by outsiders who caught a band in the midst of turmoil — or, as in the case of The Nowhere Inn, it’s the musician herself telling us about the downsides to being a rock god. But each of them go about dissecting that misery in their own way. 

Anybody who has to work a regular job may be tempted to play the world’s tiniest violin for these super-successful artists, but what connects all these movies is their subjects’ desperate desire to let you know that rocking out isn’t nearly as glamorous as it looks.

A Hard Day’s Night (1964)

What’s It About? The Beatles (playing themselves) have to get ready for a live TV performance, but first they’ve got to dodge obsessive, screaming fans and handle Paul McCartney’s misbehaving grandfather (Wilfrid Brambell).

Why Does Being a Rock Star Suck? The genius of A Hard Day’s Night — which was directed by Richard Lester and written by Alun Owen — was how it locked in on the Fab Four’s witty, smartass humor: For years after, fans thought the Beatles were the characters they’d seen on screen, a flattering portrayal that nonetheless reduced the four men to adorable caricatures. (“I thought it wasn’t bad,” John Lennon would say in the early 1970s of the film. “It could have been better,” complaining that the film perpetuated an “illusion that we were just puppets.”)

But for such a joyous film — you really do get the sense that the Beatles genuinely loved hanging out with one another — A Hard Day’s Night was also an early indicator of how musicians would communicate to their audience that fame wasn’t all that great. Although it’s depicted pretty playfully, the band can’t go anywhere without being mobbed — and they’re basically told what to do by their management. This movie managed to make those realities a comedy — most “being a rock star sucks” movies afterward didn’t find anything funny about the arrangement.

Gimme Shelter (1970)

What’s It About? The Rolling Stones tour America, ending with a free concert at Altamont. That last show does not go well.

Why Does Being a Rock Star Suck? Mick Jagger and his mates have been featured in plenty of concert films, but Gimme Shelter cuts deeper because documentarians Albert Maysles, David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin chronicle the band’s seductive onstage power while hinting at something darker going on within their music. The Stones have always been about embracing the most hedonistic elements of rock ‘n’ roll — they typified the music’s danger and sex appeal — but the deaths that occurred at Altamont removed the aura of make-believe around the fantasy the band was selling. Suddenly, all that simulated evil was morphing into something terribly real right in front of their eyes on stage. 

“We didn’t know what the film was going to be,” Albert Maysles recalled. “We just had a childish faith that having seen the Stones and getting along with them, there might be a feature film there.” Perhaps not surprising then, Gimme Shelter has the quality of a slow-moving nightmare as we — and the Stones, who are filmed watching the documentary’s footage — at last get to Altamont. It’s stunning to watch Jagger’s cocky expression melt away. The Stones didn’t cause that day’s tragedy, but you can see how the singer and the rest of the band are gutted by what happened. Suddenly, there wasn’t anything cool about being in a rock ‘n’ roll band.

200 Motels (1971)

What’s It About? This is how co-writer and co-director Frank Zappa, leader of the rock band Mothers of Invention, explained his film: “As far as I’m concerned, 200 MOTELS [is] a SURREALISTIC DOCUMENTARY. The film is at once a reportage of real events and an extrapolation of them. … [T]he film is an extension and a projection of the group’s specialized view of and participation in this intriguing arm of contemporary human experience.” Combining concert footage with staged scenes, the film follows the band — with Ringo Starr playing “Zappa” — on tour as they deal with groupies, drugs and interpersonal tensions. 

Why Does Being a Rock Star Suck? Zappa and co-director Tony Palmer were going for an experiential film that simulated the strangeness of spending your life traveling from one gig to the next. “Ladies and gentlemen, you can go mad on the road,” a voice says early in 200 Motels. “That is precisely what this film is all about.” Hailed at the time for its ambitious visuals and experimental style, the movie condemns the straights who don’t get Zappa’s avant-garde music, but also suggests that it’s nearly impossible to have anything resembling a normal, happy life when you’re spending so much time in random hotel rooms. 

Or, as Zappa supposedly said of 200 Motels, “It’s a bit like eating a sausage: You don’t know what’s in it, you probably shouldn’t know what’s in there; but if it tastes good, well, there you go.”

Renaldo and Clara (1978)

What’s It About? Bob Dylan (who directed and co-wrote the movie) plays Renaldo, a Dylan-like rock star who’s on a concert tour while grappling with a romantic triangle involving Clara (Dylan’s actual wife Sara) and “The Woman in White” (folk singer, and Dylan’s ex, Joan Baez). 

Why Does Being a Rock Star Suck? Dylan has been involved in a few films that focus on the less-appealing aspects of stardom. (The 1967 tour documentary Don’t Look Back, directed by D.A. Pennebaker, shows him tussling with annoying journalists asking inane questions.) But Renaldo and Clara earns a special spot on this list because it comes straight from Dylan, and it’s a massive ode to how deep, brilliant and complicated he thinks he is. The film runs nearly four hours, and while the concert footage — drawn from his Rolling Thunder Revue tour — is pretty incredible, any scene away from the stage is weighed down by tedious improvisation between Dylan and a cast that includes mostly musicians. 

The whole point of Renaldo and Clara is that no one appreciates what a genius Renaldo/Dylan is — it’s one of the most shameless acts of self-pity and self-aggrandizing ever put on screen. (In her pan, Village Voice critic Karen Durbin wrote, “Dylan could love no one like he loves himself.”) Dylan intended to suggest that being a rock star sucked because, like Jesus (who he compares himself to in Renaldo and Clara), you’re always being persecuted. However, anyone who’s seen the movie, which is currently hard to track down, will come away with a very different impression: Rock stars suck because they’re egotistical nightmares you wouldn’t want to ever get close to.

One-Trick Pony (1980)

What’s It About? A once-popular folk singer, Jonah (played by Paul Simon, who also wrote the script), needs for the album he’s making to be a hit to reverse his commercial fortunes.

Why Does Being a Rock Star Suck? Simon initially thought a professional actor should play Jonah, but then decided he had to play the guy himself. “I didn’t want to do a film about music that I couldn’t believe in,” he said. “That’s the biggest problem I found with other [rock-related] films. They seemed false.” 

But where other movies on this list focus on the evils of fame — drugs, excess, all that no-strings-attached sex — One-Trick Pony was a more somber look at the fickleness of the music business. Long before Defending Your Life and The Larry Sanders Show, Rip Torn played a cynical record executive determined to revive Jonah’s career, hooking him up with a red-hot producer (Lou Reed, amazingly) who wants to switch up Jonah’s style. The film offers a depressing view of what it takes to be a star — and it’s coupled by the fact that Jonah doesn’t have a good relationship with his distant wife (Blair Brown) and son (Michael Pearlman). Wanna be a rock star? One-Trick Pony is here to tell you it’s a total bummer.

Meeting People Is Easy (1998)

What’s It About? Flush with the success of OK Computer, Radiohead go on tour. They quickly become miserable.

Why Does Being a Rock Star Suck? This impressionistic documentary was directed by Radiohead videomaker Grant Gee, who envisioned the film as “a close-up stare at the band reacting to a variety of uncomfortable, newfangled promotional situations, and a depiction of the newly globalizing (just about to digitize) music business as a talent processing machine.” If 200 Motels’ psychedelic overkill was emblematic of its rock era, Meeting People Is Easy’s information overload spoke to the pre-Y2K age — not to mention neatly complementing OK Computer’s thematic concerns about dehumanization in a time of rapidly evolving technology. 

In the film, you see the band onstage, but tellingly, those moments are drowned out by scenes of press interviews and tedious downtime between gigs — we very much get the impression that, when you’re touring, the actual performing is just a small part of your day. Lots of musicians have bitched about celebrity, but Meeting People Is Easy frighteningly captured the psychological toll that sudden fame can do to a person. All these years later, Radiohead haven’t distanced themselves from the film’s grim view of stardom’s alienation: It’s available for free on their site.

I Am Trying to Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco (2002)

What’s It About? Photographer Sam Jones wanted to make a documentary about the acclaimed Chicago band as they recorded their follow-up to Summerteeth. He got just that — as well as the inside scoop on the group being dropped by their label, one of their members being fired and their frontman dealing with intense pressure and crippling migraines.

Why Does Being a Rock Star Suck? The alt-country darlings released 2002’s lauded Yankee Hotel Foxtrot amidst a lot of personal and professional turmoil, and although the band’s leader, Jeff Tweedy, isn’t your typical rock star, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart gave fans a front-row seat for the anguish he was going through while making what most consider their finest album. 

By accident, Jones stumbled into a frank illustration of the practical realities of the music business. Wilco’s label refused to release YHF because it wasn’t “commercial” enough, and Tweedy’s dismissal of band member Jay Bennett highlighted the all-important chemistry necessary to keep a group gelling. Other documentaries of the time — notably, Dig! and Metallica: Some Kind of Monster — also grappled with the flesh-and-blood personalities that make up bands, but I Am Trying to Break Your Heart makes being the frontman for a rock band feel like being a project manager with all its logistical headaches and interpersonal conflicts. And there’s nothing less rock ‘n’ roll than being a project manager.

The Nowhere Inn (2020)

What’s It About? St. Vincent (playing herself) enlists her best friend Carrie Brownstein (playing herself) to make a documentary about her life as she goes on tour. But their friendship is soon tested when Brownstein isn’t happy with the initial footage.

Why Does Being a Rock Star Suck? In a recent interview, St. Vincent (aka Annie Clark) said that The Nowhere Inn speaks to “things that I think about: the performance of identity, or the ways in which people can unwittingly become absolute slaves to their own narcissism and end up doing terrible things to people they love in service of their own ego.” And in a sense, you can connect the film to several other “being a rock star sucks” movies: the fun of playing a version of yourself from A Hard Day’s Night, the surrealism of the touring life in 200 Motels, the investigation of persona in Renaldo and Clara, the anxieties of living up to to other people’s expectations in One-Trick Pony, even the unpredictability of a real-time narrative from I Am Trying to Break Your Heart

But if The Nowhere Inn is ultimately too proud of its snake-swallowing-its-own-tale cleverness, there’s no question that Clark and Brownstein are communicating something meaningful about being rock stars in the modern age — specifically, female rock stars in an industry that’s still pretty sexist and image-conscious. All those previous films were filled with laments about the downside of fame — but all of them came from dudes. The Nowhere Inn nods its head in agreement and then counters with, “Now try being a woman in that world.”   

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