Mistaken For Strangers

by: Michael Shields

A new documentary takes you on the road with The National, while exploring what it means to be brothers….

Tom Berninger is a fuck up. A classic case. He is a true to form slacker metal-head who, at the age of 33, lives with his parents and is still trying to figure it all out. In college he directed a few slasher-films about ravenous barbarians, but since then has accomplished little else.

Tom Berninger is Matt Berninger’s little brother ((There is a 9 year age disparity.)). Matt, as many know, is the lead singer of the band The National. He is by almost every standard an enormously successful rock star, and in regards to making something of one’s life Matt and Tom are polar opposites. In 2010 Matt invited Tom to join his band on tour in support of their latest record, High Violet, as a roadie. During this international jaunt Tom, in lieu of his assumed duties as assistant to the Tour Manager, wielded his handheld Canon Vixia to, supposedly, film a documentary about the band. The result of Tom’s time on the road with The National is the recently released documentary “Mistaken For Strangers” ((The title is derived from a song off The National’s 2007 album “Boxer”, yet is apropos in regards to the brothers featured in the film.)), which surprisingly led to a trip down the red-carpet at The Tribeca Film Festival for directionless Tom, as the film served as the opening film at this year’s event.

The National, slowly yet surely, climbed their way to the top of indie-rock’s competitive ladder, culminating with 2010’s High Violet debuting at No. 3 on the Billboard Top 200 chart. They are the darlings of critics, their last three albums hailed as masterpieces, and they have amassed multitudes of loyal fans ((So much so that hordes of fans congregated at the MoMA PS1 this past weekend to watch them play one song, “Sorrow”, repeatedly for six hours as part of an art experience that presented live music in sculpture form curated by Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson, entitled “A Lot of Sorrow.””)), including yours truly. Listening to The National is a visceral experience. Matt Berninger’s existential lyrics poetically capture the complexities of everyday American life and are backed by a layered wall of sound created by Aaron And Bryce Dessner and Scott and Bryan Devendorf (( Yes, The National, notably, is made up of two sets of brothers, and Matt.)). Many of The National’s highly touted tracks begin fairly subtle, but the band possesses the uncanny ability to progressively heighten the overall feel of a song to a degree that ultimately concludes in a fiery and dizzying crescendo. Each song is a living, breathing, entity that theatrically grows as the band members harvest the power of their own sound ((Filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker once compared Bryan Devendorf’s drumming to rain falling through the leaves on a tree. Perfectly put.)) to create a riveting whirlwind of tension released with precision at the songs conclusion. This is not your run of the mill indie rock band. Not by any means. It takes a certain ‘je ne se qua’ for a brooding indie band to achieve the success they have.

The National have toured the world, headlined festivals ((Including Latitude in Europe.)), and recorded songs for movies ((Win, Win)), television shows ((Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire)) and video games ((Portal 2)). But, they have yet to be the subject of a rock documentary, and while “Mistaken For Strangers” is somewhat about the band, it is far from your traditional, behind-the-music rock-doc.

In “Mistaken For Strangers” The National serve as more of a backdrop to a surprisingly heartwarming story. It’s a film about family; and an incredibly relatable depiction about what it means to be brothers. It’s the portrait of one family’s black sheep trying to make it in the mammoth shadow of his successful, yet supportive, older brother. And it’s also a documentary about making a documentary – a self-deprecating “mockumentary” of sorts, which honestly displays Tom’s faults in an ultimately engaging, and humorous, portrayal of humanity.

The film does not wallow in the typical brand of rock-doc inner-band turmoil, and the reason for this is The National, who Tom describes as “coffeehouse” ((All except for Bryan Devendorf, who Tom begged to party with him because he was the closest thing to “metal” in the band)), operate fairly drama free. The film fails in giving (or better yet, it doesn’t even attempt to) ample airtime to anyone who does not have the last name Berringer. The interviews with the other band members, who are so often neglected due to Matt’s imposing presence anyhow, are hacky and devoid of substance ((He interviews band members everywhere from hotel showers to parking garages with questions like, “Do you bring your wallet and ID on stage?” and “What kind of drugs have you done?”)). There is minimal footage of The National in the studio recording their upcoming album, Trouble will Find Me, and Tom is more apt to turn the camera on himself then share the spotlight. But we do experience the highs and lows of tour life, and we luckily catch a few fascinating moments with the band….

We are taken backstage before The National’s first gig in Paris where Matt paces nervously. He then heeds his brother’s advice to just scream and let it out all, escaping into a stall bellowing out the lyrics to the moving “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks”, which gloriously echo down the hallway. We attend a Los Angeles show that comes unhinged and an unsuspecting backstage coat-rack takes the blame. And we bear witness to the dark place that Matt delves into when performing, storming off the stage to cool off alone, or within the soothing comfort of his wife’s arms.

In the film’s third act, which takes place in Matt’s home in Ditmis Park, Broolyn Tom moves in to finish editing the film. You get the sense that Matt (and his wife) allow him to do so to ensure that Tom finally finishes something. This is where the film begins to culminate as Tom’s vulnerability is exposed like a wound, and Matt’s love and support for his brother tourniquets the incision.

Like any good rock concert “Mistaken For Strangers” comes equipped with an encore ((I am not here to ruin the conclusion of the film – just to tease it!)). In an extremely sharp and well-executed second-ending to the film we follow Matt into the crowd as he wails out the apex of the song “Terrible Love”. As “It takes an ocean not to break”, It takes an ocean not to break” resonates throughout the room, Tom and Matt share a moment that brings the whole thing home.

Dissecting “Mistaken For Strangers” after viewing it is part of the fun. It’s interesting to contemplate if this film, which is damn good, is the jumping off point for Tom. Has he learned from Matt how to chase his dream with the dedication it takes to attain it? Has he, through the process of making this film, learned how to see things to completion? Has he garnered the confidence to move forward into other projects with newfound focus and determination? Or, is this just another case of Tom literally riding Matt’s coat tails to his one and only taste of success? Whatever the case, Tom will always have this documentary under his belt, proof that he saw something through to the end. Proof that he is not just capable, but talented. And, proof that he possibly isn’t quite the fuck up we all thought he was.

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