The National is my favorite band. I listen to them when I drive, when I work and when I cook. I have seen them live twice. I love their moody sound, their climactic concerts, Matt Berninger’s voice, and their song “Bloodbuzz Ohio”. In my humble opinion, The National is an extraordinary band, after all, they were the first band to be featured on Game of Thrones with their rendition of the “Rains of Castamere”, so you know, they have that going for them. But they also have a very funny and poignant documentary about them, entitled Mistaken for Strangers.
Mistaken for Strangers is a documentary directed by the frontman Matt Berninger’s younger brother, Tom Berninger. Tom could not be more different from his older by nine years brother. Matt is successful and artistically accomplished with his band. He has a wife with a young daughter and lives in Brooklyn. He goes on a world tour and plays for President Obama and has such celebrities like the cast of Lost, Will Arnett and Amy Poehler, and even Werner Herzog come see The National perform. Matt is confident, ambitious and successful. Tom, to put it simply, isn’t.
Tom is single, lives at home in Cincinnati, doesn’t think he has the time to get a girlfriend because he doesn’t own dishes or has the clothes he thinks women want him to wear, and has directed two very low budget action-horror movies that both end in a murderous rampage. Matt is an artistic indie rocker, Tom is metal head who lives with his parents. But an opportunity arises when Tom is asked by his big brother to join The National on tour and be a roadie. And so, the documentary begins.
Tom decides to film the year long world tour and make a documentary about The National and life on the road. Tom’s job as a roadie appears to not be a terribly difficult one, but Tom expects to be partying with the band and live the life of a rock star. Instead, he finds out that touring isn’t that exciting and instead of doing his job, he loses guest lists and gets drunk on the tour bus. As Tom works as a roadie, he interviews the fellow band members and asks about Matt, about himself, about their relationship to Matt. These are not the typical questions featured in a rock documentary, these are the questions about someone trying to learn more about his relationships and about himself.
The documentary takes a life of its own and transforms itself from a documentary about a band to a film about brothers. It features the highs and lows of a band’s first world tour, the great successes and failures that come with the tour, and the difficulties of touring. But along the way, as Tom fucks up as a roadie, the film focuses more on the fraternal relationship between these two men, and less of life on the road. The scenes where Matt and Tom fight and argue back stage feel real and ring the most true in a documentary that at times feel very meta (after all who is filming Tom filming the band?). These fights are laced with family history, and you can feel the frustration in Matt and the confusion in Tom. These brothers love each other and are trying to better understand each other.
And ultimately, that is what this documentary is about: two brothers trying to do good for each other. One giving another an opportunity, and the other attempting to prove himself, to show his potential to his more successful brother. It’s a touching movie and shows in an honest light what it’s like to strive for artistic merit and the struggle to create something to fruition. This theme was unexpected and welcome as someone going into this movie only as a fan of a band and not realizing it’s true thesis. The National features two sets of brothers, it is only apt for the documentary to focus on what it means to be a brother.
Mistaken for Strangers is a great documentary for fans of The National for it shows the behind the scenes of a world tour in a very humorous light. Tom is a very funny person and his clashing personality makes for some seriously funny scenes. But the documentary is ultimately about two brothers and their relationship with art and with each other, a topic worth exploring and viewing in this entertaining and thoughtful documentary.