Mistaken for Strangers is not a film about The National – and that’s a good thing


The National are a band made up of brothers. Aaron and Bryce Dessner each handle guitar duties in the band, while Scott and Bryan Devendorf are on bass and drums, respectively. That has always left vocalist Matt Berninger as the sole member without a sibling in the band, a fact that was nearly remedied when Matt invited his younger brother Tom Berninger on tour in 2010.

Ostensibly brought along on The National’s world-wide High Violet tour as a roadie (and to get him out of his parent’s house in Ohio) Tom spends most of the time in awe of the recent success of the band and his surroundings. He films himself wandering the streets of Europe for the first-time, and exploring the lush venues overseas.  He devotes his time to making a “documentary” on the band, constantly walking around with his small video camera and pestering them with interviews composed of completely unprepared and unintentionally hilarious questions, as when he asks drummer Bryan, “How many drugs have you done?”

Matt doesn’t really go in for the moody, introspective music of The National. He’s a metal-head, who loves to party and listen to Rob Halford’s Christmas album. He quickly realizes that touring life for a successful indie-rock band in the 00’s is not the sort of bacchanalian party he had envisioned. His brother Matt is distant, often disappearing after shows, and constantly reprimanding him for drinking, due to his “allergy” to alcohol, which on one memorable occasion led to his passing out on a potato chip rack in a bodega. To top it off, the band’s tour manager is constantly on his case, warning him to stop drinking and socializing with the band so much. After all, he reminds him, a roadie is part of the crew, not the band.

Things quickly spiral out of control for Tom. He loses the band’s guest list in LA, leaving the likes of Werner Herzog and the cast of Lost milling outside the venue for close to an hour. The final straw for Tom is when he misses bus call in New York, forcing the band to drive hours back through New York State in the middle of the night to pick him up. Tom is then summarily fired, and shacks up in Matt’s daughter’s playroom while he attempts to piece his film (and life) back together.

Tom’s quest for legitimacy and his older brother’s respect is at the heart of Mistaken for Strangers. The film is actually about The National only in the sense that the band is the vehicle which drives the conflict between Matt and Tom. Sibling rivalry is cumbersome in any sense, but is only compounded when you live at home with your parents while your older brother is touring the world and meeting President Obama.

Tom is great guide to the world of The National, often catching the band at their most unguarded (even naked in one segment). The fact that he is barely a fan of the band is actually a bonus, allowing for the perfect tonal mix of appreciation and subtle mockery that only a band member’s brother could get away with.

Tom’s frequent fuck up’s can be incredibly awkward and painful to watch, especially in the stress-filled early half of the film, when he is thrown into the high-stakes world of arena rock production with zero experience. However, as we see Tom hatch down and begin to slowly assemble his mountain of footage of the band, he becomes the unlikely star of the story, overshadowing the band entirely. His documented goal to create a film that will make his brother proud is incredibly touching, and the constant barrage of bad luck and bad decisions that lead to the film finally coming together are truly inspiring.

Mistaken for Strangers might be one of the best rock doc’s ever, precisely because the band and the music are relegated to the background. Tom and Matt’s rocky relationship actually says more about the trials and tribulations of a successful rock band than any other band documentary in recent memory, and Tom’s everyman approach offers an voyeuristic and absorbing look at how two very different brothers eventually manage to relate to each other.

Mistaken for Strangers is in select theatres, on-demand and Itunes March 28, 2014.

For more info visit http://mistakenforstrangersmovie.com/

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