A Look at ‘Mistaken For Strangers,’ The New Documentary on The National

The rock doc has become an increasingly popular sub-genre of film that documents the lifestyle of a band on tour trying to lead their lives while going on an incredible journey of fame, money and sex. Now take all these connotations and rid them from your mind so you won’t be as disappointed as Tom Berninger was while touring with brother Matt Berninger’s band, critically acclaimed indie darlings, The National.

Mistaken For Strangers Gives an Honest Perspective

The reality of The National’s tour was a concept that younger brother Tom, who is labeled as a metal-head that finds indie rock to be “pretentious bullshit,” had a hard time grasping after being asked to embark on the band’s tour in 2010, the biggest of their career at the time. “Mistaken for Strangers” breaks the mold on the usual format, instead, it focuses on the story of the two vastly different brothers, putting heart and honesty in the forefront.

Tom’s expectations are high on the road, as he brings along his camera with the intention of creating a documentary on the band. He aims to capture the rock and roll lifestyle, only to find that the members are what he deems “coffee house,” a notion emphasized while trying to persuade drummer Bryan Devendorf to list off the drugs he’s used.

Interviews with the other band members slowly turn into pseudo therapy sessions for Tom, who begins to feel the weight of living in his brother’s shadow while making a series of blunders on the job. Between the story are inter-cuts of footage that portray what an incredible live show The National are capable of.

The clips include Matt breathlessly belting out “Mr. November” into the crowd while lying flat, or walking into the audience while fans try to reach out and touch him as if he is the messiah of indie rock (he is), and they even follow him straight out of the venue into a nearly empty hall shouting “it takes an ocean not to break” to the confused few outside. The film also includes shots of Matt’s signature on stage drinking, as well as him handing out booze to the audience and banging a microphone on his head.

What the viewer gets is a rare look into a post-performance stupor displayed by Matt who walks off stage and seemingly doesn’t recognize his brother with a glazed look in his eyes. Matt’s wife Caren Besser explains to Tom, who is upset by the interaction, or lack thereof, that Matt needs to go into a weird place to put on a show. While in another moment in the film, we see an upset Matt knock-over a coat rack after a performance he deemed terrible.

The ill-constructed plot of the film only betters the story as it becomes increasingly self-referential to Tom’s various downfalls, from being fired mid-tour, to a failed pre-screening of the films first cut. Yet alongside the failures are beautiful moments between brothers where Matt takes a moment to help warm his brother while onset of a photo-shoot, or an upset Tom crying into the camera while lamenting that he wants to make something good for he and his brother.

The result is a beautiful story of familial relationships and failed ambitions. One doesn’t need to be a fan of The National in order to relate to both Tom and Matt, who struggle to identify with one another, as they grow older with increasingly different lives.

The documentary is available to watch on various screens, big and small. More info here.

Article by Raefa Alsalah

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