'Mistaken for Strangers': Much More Than A Rock Documentary About The National
The rock star of the new film Mistaken for Strangers—ostensibly a documentary about the indie rock quintet The National—isn’t lead singer Matt Berninger. Nor is it one of the brother-guitarists Bryce and Aaron Dessner, or brothers Scott and Bryan Devendorf, who play bass and drums for the band, respectively.
No, the real star is Matt’s “kid” brother Tom, a 30-something, schlubby slacker who’s hired as a roadie for one of The National’s tours, but decides to make a documentary about the band instead. That decision to change job descriptions doesn’t sit too well with tour manager and sometimes his brother. After a series of screwups, from losing show guest lists to forgetting the band’s onstage water and towels to drinking too much and missing the tour bus call time, Tom is sent back to his mom and dad’s home in Cincinnati.
The brothers are so different, with Matt, who’s nine years older, touring the world with the band; and Tom at home making short horror films and rocking out to metal music. In Ohio.
Tom seems wholly unprepared for the documentary filmmaker thing, especially when he’s taping interviews. (Or maybe it’s a sign of a genius filmmaker at work?) We love the random shots of the band members’ prepping, cleaning up and brushing their teeth before going onstage. The dynamic between the brothers Berninger is fascinating to watch—including scenes where Matt lectures his brother about being careful of his “allergy” to alcohol (aka drinking too much of it). This advice is astounding, as it comes from the guy who has a drink in hand for more than half of his scenes in the movie.
During formal onscreen interviews, Tom’s questions are rambling and off-the-cuff, much to the frustration of Matt, who gives him suggestions on preparation. But that slightly off-kilter, unprofessional style fits the film and Tom’s (at least onscreen) persona. We laughed when Tom questions drummer Bryan whether he brings his wallet onstage to play (he does) or when he asks him to list the drugs he’s done on camera (he doesn’t). And Tom’s not deadpanning when he adds, “They [other members of The National] seem so coffeehouse and you seem more metal.”
The film’s shaky, handheld style for some of the shots has been done a million times before, but it makes sense when knowing who’s often helming that camera. The cuts are quick and sloppy, but Tom and his film crew have managed to craft something together that works well.
The documentary doesn’t end with Tom’s firing or with the end of the tour. Despite their fights on the road, Matt invites Tom to live with him, his wife and daughter in New York to cut down the 200 hours of footage and finish the film. (We hear from their parents’ that while Tom oozes with creativity, he has a tendency to quit before finishing anything.). The support that he gets from Matt and his wife (who helped produce and edit the film) is touching.
While Mistaken for Strangers has all the right ingredients for a Christopher Guest mockumentary, it remains grounded in reality. With much humor and a little heartbreak, the film becomes so much more than a band documentary (or parody of one). It’s ultimately a story about love, family and self-discovery. And whether or not you like The National should have no bearing on the film. Even Tom admits that even sometimes he doesn’t get Matt’s music. Now that’s brotherly love.
The film is available on iTunes and on demand today. It opens in L.A. at the Arena Cinema in Hollywood on April 4