On Mistaken for Strangers

I’ve long been a fan of The National, the indie rock band easily identifiable by lead singer Matt Berninger’s deep vocals and by their uniquely cinematic music, increasingly popping up in films as the perfect score for heightening already-emotional moments. Although my husband has long claimed that The National’s music bores him, I convinced him to watch a recently released documentary about the band. Within 80 minutes, he was completely converted.

But the documentary, which shares its name Mistaken for Strangers with one of the band’s songs, isn’t your typical music documentary film. The whole project starts when The National needs a hand on their European tour. Lead singer Matt calls on his younger brother Tom, a metalhead and amateur filmmaker, to assist the five man group as a roadie. Tom takes the opportunity to also film the outfit, interviewing the various members about their experiences as a touring band of rising fame and capturing their stirring live performances.

It doesn’t take long until Tom’s initial aim of capturing The National on film becomes completely derailed. The content of his movie becomes much more personal, focusing upon the relationship he and his brother share, even routing his interviews with the other band members to their thoughts on Matt more than their experiences as members of the group itself. Once Tom is (deservedly and predictably) fired from the tour, audiences are left wondering where he can possibly take his film project without access to his brother’s band. Is this movie just going to leave us despising Matt Berninger for being unforgiving and harsh to his hilarious, earnest brother, even if he is a bit of a screw up? Are the Berninger brothers going to be able to overcome the professional rift that ended both their relationship as band member/roadie and filmmaker/film subject? Luckily the answer to the former is no, and for the later it’s yes. The route that Matt and Tom take to get there, however, is engagingly captured and heartwrenchingly narrated for the remainder of the film in Tom’s very able hands. The movie ultimately is a fascinating investigation into family dynamics more than a profile of one of the world’s foremost indie rock groups.

I was frankly surprised to learn that Matt, nine years Tom’s senior, was the golden child, a star athlete and continually successful kid. In retrospect it makes sense as Berninger’s personality is revealed to us through the movie, but most people wouldn’t expect the creative force behind a band such as The National to have lead such an untroubled childhood. Tom, on the other hand, wasn’t such an easy kid to raise. His mother, interviewed in the film, laments how Tom was always quitting his endeavors, how he just couldn’t seem to get it together the way his older brother could. But she also admits that Tom was always the most talented one of her children. It’s readily apparent that Tom is an entertaining, inventive, and funny person to be around, but admittedly a bit immature. Some of my favorite bits in the movie are when he asks various members of the group to stage mock-serious shots, things as bizarre as wiping the steam from the cloudy post-shower bathroom mirror and state “The National belongs to everyone now.” I guess you kind of have to see it to get the humor, but Tom obviously doesn’t take himself too seriously and it comes across as a virtue. Though I would certainly have been annoyed as a member of the band by some of his antics, I found him to be a wildly entertaining narrator of and personality in the film. His interactions with the members of The National provide much of the levity needed in Mistaken for Strangers and also highlight the type of person Tom unabashedly is.

Tom completely proves his mom right regarding his talent – the proof is in Mistaken for Strangers itself, a story of two brothers sorting their relationship out that disguises itself as a music documentary. There were points where I had no idea how the film would conclude, how the Berninger boys would figure out their roles as brothers, one wildly successful as a rock star and the other struggling to find his footing. But Tom captures that journey and tops it off with a finale sequence that gave me chills, a cut of the movie perfectly paired with The National’s music which continually pleases by lending itself so beautifully to film.

The conclusion of Berninger’s movie was strongly reminiscent of the final scene in Warrior, a film about two brothers competing in a mixed martial arts tournament set to The National’s “About Today” track. I only caught the final five minutes of the movie when my husband was watching it, but it was patently obvious that a more ideal song could not have been blended with that movie’s tear-jerking conclusion. No more than a few days later, I had to go back and watch the whole thing. My husband invited me to watch it the first go-round, but I declined just on the basis of its plot line. Warrior was a movie I never would have sought on my own if not for serendipitously walking through the living room and seeing for myself how The National’s music was beautifully, heartbreakingly utilized in that final sequence.

So it seems that this film review, like the film Mistaken for Strangers itself, started as a rumination on one thing and ended with another as it’s central topic. Heed my advice and when you add Mistaken for Strangers to your must-watch list, put Warrior on that queue while you’re at it.

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