There has been much hype and expectation surrounding Mistaken for Strangers, a documentary about the now hugely popular indie-rock band The National, as we find out from the film itself, it took an incredible amount of work to complete. Mistaken for Strangers is a wonderful, post-modern film, which by definition is a music documentary, but due to its director, lead singer Matt Berninger’s brother Tom, it is much, much more than that.
Mistaken for Strangers takes place during The National’s world tour of 2010/11, shortly after the release of the hugely successful High Violet. Matt asks his amateur film-making enthusiast brother to accompany them on tour as roadie (and maybe shoot a little footage too) as he is unemployed. What follows is a fairly remarkable story of two very different brothers rather than a great indie-rock band.
Where Matt is a popular and focused rock star (of sorts) his brother is a nobody; a failure even. Coming off as a real-life Jack Black persona, Tom Berninger likes heavy metal music, making cheap horror films and lacks direction. Tom awkwardly interviews his own parents about his and Matt’s upbringing in some of the most delightful scenes in the film. As children, we see that Matt really was “carried in the arms of cheerleaders”; a talented baseball player and hugely popular school kid. His brother on the other hand is less attractive and a self-confessed weirdo, but they still love each other, if slightly envious of each other and it is this central relationship that anchors the film.
Tom is extremely funny in a very dorky way, and completely at odds with the band. We see his film-making process, which takes far more precedent than his actual job as roadie for a professional rock band with a demanding tour manager, as an unfocused mess. Tom is unprepared and lacking in asking the band relevant questions that their fans may want to hear, because he isn’t a fan of the band, they are merely his brother and his friends. As a result some viewers have questioned if the band really existed and whether this was a mockumentary in the Spinal Tap tradition.
At times we see Matt getting incredibly frustrated with his brother for his lack of focus, and this tension is the driving force of much of the “action”. It is an excellent watch, with just enough of the band to keep fans interested, but more because Tom is such a charming and endearing loser who is the real star of the film and a total joy to watch. Throughout we often share Matt’s frustration with his roadie-come-director, but it is easy to see Tom’s intentions are soundly based. The sheer amount of footage Tom ends up having to edit with becomes the 3rd act and thus a film-within-a-film, as Tom becomes self-doubting and unsure as to whether he can ever really complete the project.
Once Tom finally completes the film, there is a great sense of relief and genuine pleasure as it clearly becomes an all-encompassing project for him. When he finishes it, with the encouragement of his brother, it is a brilliant and clearly very important personal moment for the director, being the first thing he’s ever finished of which he can be truly proud. In this sense, watching this amateur director’s achievement (i.e the film you were watching up until this point), is a hugely life-affirming moment, celebrated by the band, friends and family alike.
Mistaken for Strangers is a real achievement then largely because you don’t need to be a fan of the band to appreciate it since the director isn’t one either. The film’s soundtrack is peppered with The National’s consistently excellent music and features lots of behind-the-scenes and early footage of a young band from Cincinnati trying to make a name in New York City later to become darlings of Brooklyn. But one does not really learn anything particularly insightful about the band because Tom is a hilariously under-prepared director, almost accidentally striking upon his own directorial voice and style, even if it is a heavily imposing one. Whether or not Tom Berninger will be able to achieve anything like this again remains to be seen, but for now, he has made a real achievement here, and the film’s biggest charm is that it’s audience will surely share in that sense of pride.
Review by Adam Turner-Heffer