In this age of social media and damage control, it’s particularly difficult to make a rock doc. It’s even more difficult if your subject is The National, a successful rock band that counts The Killers and Arcade Fire as their contemporaries, popular enough to sell out major venues worldwide and even hold an audience with the President of the United States. So, go ahead, ask your neighbor what their favorite The National song might be. Go ahead. Take your time, let them try to think about it. Better yet, ask someone on the street who their frontman is.
Despite the fact that the band remains enormously talented but almost comically anonymous, it’s worth noting that “Mistaken For Strangers” allows you the knowledge that right off the bat The National is fronted by casually-handsome middle–aged Matthew Berninger, and that we’ll now see him in front of the camera of director Tom Berninger, his brother. The National is a five-man unit with two sets of brothers, but Matthew’s brother, younger by nine years, is at home, following his own muse. As it turns out, “Mistaken For Strangers” is named not only for the mostly-unknown identity of the band, but for the lack of resemblance between these two siblings.
As Matthew has embarked upon a world tour of rockstar success, Tom has remained at home, charmingly portly, his creative endeavors represented by two gory, forgotten no-budget fantasy films that don’t seem to have ever achieved release. With these skills in incubation, Tom jumps at the chance to be a roadie for The National, a request made out of familial love more than actual professional necessity. Tom uses the opportunity to bring along his camera, capturing the sights from Eastern Europe all the way to New York, running thankless errands for the band (sometimes with a beer in hand) while also documenting the lives of its members.
It seems as if there’s a genuine love between Matthew and Tom, though otherwise Matthew comes across as something of a dead-serious craftsman. Perhaps it’s his own stressful acknowledgement of the middling success of a critically-adored band that simply cannot find a way into the mainstream: he scoffs at an off-camera question about his own individual “fame,” and later his own father notes how proud he is while carefully specifying that Matthew’s success is in the “indie-rock” realm. The reality is that, even with the concert halls stuffed with fans who know the words to every song, the pressure is on to deliver a consistently affecting performance, and this remains a job, not the fun sex-and-drugs-fueled odyssey it used to be for rock bands of another era.
What’s interesting is that this is seen through Tom’s spectrum. His love and respect for his brother is obvious, but he still returns to the crew bus to listen to Rob Halford on his headphones when he isn’t working. This lack of insight leads to interview sessions that seem like the broadsides of “The Chris Farley Show” sketches back in the '90s, where Farley would ask open-ended, poorly-formed questions to his subjects without any sense of a follow-up. Tom may see himself as a filmmaker, but a journalist he is not, and it’s amusing seeing the band treat him as exactly what he is: a charmingly excitable little brother to the lead singer.
Because The National is a great band without much actual drama, the film soon becomes about Tom’s struggles as an inept roadie. You get the sense that, even with his self-deprecating sense of humor, Tom’s leaving a lot out about his ineptitude in this position, not only failing to hit his marks (at one point he leaves an invited Werner Herzog waiting at the box office fifteen minutes before a show) but also casually drinking on the job. It’s unspoken that Tom’s idea of being on the road comes from an earlier time when everybody was motivated by the same sense of misbehavior; instead, every accident and minor mistake is frowned upon by a team of handlers coddling the image of The National for either their record company, or for the posterity of being rock stars in today’s world, where every tweet is scrutinized beyond necessity.
With its rock doc trappings, it’s impossible to ignore that “Mistaken For Strangers” delivers on that front, with thrilling and candid on-stage footage that allows the band’s music to come alive: if you weren’t a fan before, you will be after the film. Fortunately, effervescent Tom carries enough charm to ignore the more downbeat ideas of this film: coded between the lines of every loving admonishment from his brother is the idea that Matthew doesn’t think highly of Tom’s ability to be a functioning part of any team. But to think that Tom will somehow be redeemed at the end of “Mistaken For Strangers” would be to cheapen the affection between brothers and compartmentalize the journey Tom continues to take. “Mistaken For Strangers” is therefore an incomplete picture, and it would feel like a cheat any other way. [A-]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival.