Director: Tom Berninger
Cast: Tom Berninger, Matt Berninger
Watch Mistaken for Strangers online in the UK: iTunes / Curzon Home Cinema / TalkTalk TV
In a different time, in a different place, Mistaken for Strangers may well have moseyed up to the after-show looking for all intents and purposes like one of those boilerplate rock docs about the various trials and tribulations of a band on the run. And sure, at a first, rather apprehensive glance, this droll and strangely poignant endeavour about Cincinnati miserablists the National certainly draws on some of that jazz. Quite a bit, in fact.
The film’s genetic antecedent is 1998’s Meeting People Is Easy, the seminal Grant Gee movie that charted the progression of Radiohead from alternative noise heroes to champions of the world. A good chunk of that picture’s ‘behind-the-music’ characteristics are in the mix here.
From giddy stage-side shots of the band in gloriously fierce motion, to random tour-bus shenanigans, and the occasional display of gold standard ligging (even the President of the United States gets a cameo, the swine), Mistaken for Strangers showcases many of the tropes that you’d expect with this kind of production. But its greatest trick, the film’s raison d’être, is that it’s barely a film about the National at all.
The star (and director) is Tom Berninger. He’s the brother of Matt Berninger, the group’s intense and unnaturally focussed lead singer. Unlike his colleagues, Matt is the only member who doesn’t have a brother in the band. In this not-so-merry few, he truly does stand alone. Tom, on the other hand, has scarcely left Cincinnati. He floats between jobs, harasses the staff at the local record store, and consumes takeaway Chinese food in abundance. He’s in something of a rut, at least at the beginning.
Conscious of his brother’s directionless existence, Matt invites Tom on the road with the National as they support the release of 2010 album High Violet, a commercial watershed for the band. Tom takes a job as a roadie, a profession for which he’s tragically under-qualified, and joins his brother for an eye-opening, relationship-defining journey across the globe, capturing all the action on video camera.
As a portrait of brotherhood, and the terrible love that exists between family, Mistaken for Strangers is a curiously moving achievement. There are moments of extreme candour throughout, as the film swerves woozily between post-gig, confessional intimacy, and laugh-out-loud, Spinal Tap-ish embarrassment. Tempers run high throughout, as Matt berates his brother almost constantly, it seems, for not making the most out of the opportunities presented to him.
In all honesty, the singer comes across as a bit of a douche: someone struggling to keep his ego in check as the spiritual leader of a band in the process of going stratospheric. Employing his under-achieving brother seems to provide Matt with a form of karmic anchor as he negotiates his way through the hazardous waters of a semi-showbiz lifestyle. A selfish reminder of home, maybe? Meanwhile, Tom wonders what kind of influence he can possibly have on Matt’s increasingly bizarre life, with bittersweet results.
Occasionally, the siblings find middle ground, and ditch the tussling in favour of a kind of tentative peace. In the film’s final throes, as it staggers drunkenly towards a sanguine conclusion, there’s perhaps a sense that Tom is finally beginning to understand both his relationship with Matt, and his place in the universe. It’s at this realisation that the film smash cuts to an important credit: “A Film by Tom Berninger”. At last, something to call his own. They say that love is a virtue, don’t they?