Mistaken For Strangers is the kind of documentary that fans of The National will find themselves purchasing to add to an impressive collection of six studio albums thus far. A rockumentary however, the film is not. Slacker Tom Berninger, younger brother of Matt Berninger lead singer of The National is given a roadie job for the bands World Tour. It’s a brothers in arms gesture from the currently more successful elder brother.
Tom takes the opportunity to film as much as he can band / management permitting and at times, non-permitting also. This offers deeply insightful access to a band whose popularity is still on the up and seemingly for the whom the sky is the limit. The movie ultimately is not about The National though. Deeper, more personal areas are explored and the film becomes one more about the younger brothers direction in life.
Family strength. Rivalry. Life direction. Goals and simple needs transpire. Mistaken For Strangers is patched together but never patchy. Fans of the band will lap up footage (for example, early footage of a track from the current album Trouble Will Find Me). It is very clear Tom is no real fan of the band musically and he comes across in a very endearing way.
Of all the themes the movie exposes jealousy is omitted. Tom clearly loves his older brother and vice-versa. This is all but unsaid, it doesn’t need to be highlighted – you can see it. This is the films real strength and because of it non fans of the band will be able to take in the movie in exactly the same way (minus occasional foot tapping).
As the World Tour takes in Europe the younger brother / director is disappointed with the lack of Rock n’ Roll excess which sees him slacken from his roadie duties. Tequila moments see him having his own imaginary isolated success story. One scene, where the band are about to take stage, sees Tom chasing the band citing when members of Lynyrd Skynyrd died in an airplane crash one was replaced by his brother, then he points at himself. The band and entourage gaze at Tom with warmth and bemusement.
As the Tour rolls so does the camera. Largely seen, at time of filming, the camera, or more importantly the man holding the camera is seen as no threat. The National consist of two sets of brothers and the frontman. It is the frontmans brother who is attempting to find his own way and although unsaid he is proud of the invitation to tour with the band. He asks the kind of questions that border on the autistic spectrum. Toms openness and goofball style portrays how creative people function in a far more transparent way than the famous band. Attempting to bond deeper with Bryan Devendorf – Tom takes the camera into the drummers shower. Quizzing the drummer about what drugs he has done in the past is greeted with silence and a look that will make anyone smile.
The movie flips on its head as management of The National turn on the director. Spoilers aside a nine month gap is felt by the viewers as the film gets more powerful and personal. It is a colourful winner of a film which is, akin to the brothers proverbially leaning on each other is held up by the music of The National – which is why most will view it. Mistaken For Strangers examines family distance and nearing. Untold affection and need for support. Gestures, words and moments of abandon. Mistakes and reconciliation. The film does not attempt to triumph – which is why it does…