I love The National so when I discovered this documentary, I thought it would get me some charming insight into this band, its members’ lives, the lyrics and the magic. And I did get some insight. But a very different one from what I imagined.
Watching this doc reminded me of how I accidentally discovered The National, when a good friend gave me her ticket for a show in London. I didn’t know them almost at all, but enjoyed the concert enormously. Yet, when Matt Berninger (the lead singer) jumped in the crowed and came towards us, singing, everyone wanted to touch him, only I had a strange instinct to protect myself and jumped on the side. I wouldn’t do that again. The National is now one of my favorite bands.
Mistaken for Strangers is not about The National per se, but about Tom Berninger – who is the brother of Matt Berninger and the director of this film – going on tour with The National. It is meant to portray this famous brother/non-famous brother relationship, through interviews and interactions of all sorts and tour backstage moments. It has some good shots from the shows as well, of course. But what it’s meant to do with what it does, are two different things.
What doesn’t work in this film and it is terribly annoying is that Tom Berninger is playing himself too much, building too much of a persona and trying too hard to be this non-famous brother, clumsy and wearing 16 year old-like metal head tshirts. This is forced from the very beginning and it makes the film be so much less than it could have been. Something doesn’t feel right from the first shots, when someone – don’t know who – is talking to Matt Berninger, asking him questions. to one of which he answers that his brother is a metal head and would probably find his indie music pretentious. Then we see the camera going to this metal head brother – as if to surprise him and interview him – only to discover this brother is actually directing the film. How much of what he does throughout the film is just pretend, it’s up to you to judge and probably only he knows for sure. But on the overall it feels a bit too easy and irritating.
But there is a but. There are actually a couple of other reasons for which I don’t regret seeing this film. If you can make it over the irritation Tom can inflict, probably you can appreciate these things too. One of the reasons to watch this is to see Matt Berninger at work from behind the stage and a not so much the typical rock band atmosphere before the shows. It’s great to have a look from the other side of the stage because you get to see the jump from the job-like attitude of Matt and the band to the magic they create during their shows.
In this half-pushed portrayal of the brothers’ relationship, there are actually moments which give it a nice twist. One of these moments are the interviews with Matt and Tom’s parents. Their answers about their two sons – famous and not so famous – are so honest and raw, and have the kind of relaxation probably no one else but Tom – their son – could have inspired them.
Last, the film has subtle bits of stories and characters, small interpretable answers, good images from the shows and light moments of vulnerability unconsciously shown. It makes you reflect a bit on what it’s like to have a brother 10 miles ahead of you, whether a famous singer or anything else. And it makes you question what ‘making it’ and ‘not making it’ actually mean. But altogether I wonder what can Mistaken for Strangers do for you if you’re not a fan of The National. Can it do anything for you? I guess it’s up to you to judge. And perhaps, if the story doesn’t tell you much, what you’ll be left with is their great music.