Last year, Tom Berninger, the younger of brother of The National’s lead singer Matt Berninger, premiered a documentary about the band at the Tribeca Film Festival, and since then it has gone on to win favorable reviews and enjoy much success. A surprisingly lovable rock documentary, this film is worth seeking out, whether via on demand, indie theaters, or iTunes. For anyone who loves The National, indie documentaries, or music in general, this is an absolute must see.
Mistaken for Strangers tells the story of Tom and Matt’s relationship. At the time of the film’s conception, Tom is living at home and Matt is gaining success as the singer of one of the biggest indie acts around. Matt invites Tom to be a roadie on their next big tour yet, and Tom decides to film the entire thing, hoping to make a documentary about the band. What starts as a fun piece about a rock band turns into a sometimes tragic, sometimes upbeat, story about two brothers at two very different places in their lives.
As documentaries go, this one is far more personal than your average documentary fare, really delving into the day to day experience of rock stars and roadies in a quirky fashion. Tom doesn’t ask artistic or general questions to the members of the band, instead having them do funny things in front of the camera and answer questions about their view of Matt and Tom as brothers. One of my favorite on-tour moments is when Tom films the bass player in an eerie parking lot, a little reminder of Tom’s horror film and metal music roots. This is only one of many heartwarming, bonding moments between him and the band, though many of Tom’s attempts to be friends make him feel alienated.
When all’s said and done, the film is not about a band making it, but the filmmaker living in the shadow of his rock star brother. Anyone who’s ever felt like an outsider can relate, as well as anyone who’s ever felt their creative output hasn’t been appreciated. It’s a story about failure, told through the eyes of a roadie, making it therapeutic and rocking all at once. One minute you’ll be clearing away a tear or two at Tom and Matt’s strained relationship, and the next laughing at Tom hollering at what he believes to be Moby’s house.
The brilliance of the film comes from getting to witness very human moments from figures the media blows out of proportion. Matt Berninger, known for an intense stage show, gets to honestly show every side of himself, as do all the members of the band – Tom brilliantly catches them off guard with his offbeat personality, fun loving filmmaking style, and desire to achieve something great alongside the group. The result is fun, very meta, and quietly inspiring.
Not only all these things but also the music is of course provided by The National, live and recorded performances making it into the documentary. Some of their best tunes make it into the soundtrack, as well as some scoring by Tom himself, and a few metal tracks near and dear to his heart. As Matt says early on, Tom is not actually too interested in indie rock, instead going the way of the head-banging, horn-handed metal-head. Part of the charm of the film is seeing the relationships not only between people, but between people and their music (there’s some earnest comments about songwriting and recording that are also very cool).
Overall, Mistaken for Strangers is a must see, if only for a quirky adventure into the mind of filmmaker and his rock star brother. It’s the film you’d never thought would exist, and a great cinematic surprise. It’s available everywhere, so enjoy.