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Film Review: Mistaken for Strangers

Mistaken for Strangers (2013; Directed by Tom Berninger)

Mistaken for Strangers must be the least music-centric rockumentary ever produced, and that oddly makes it one of the better ones in recent memory. The film focuses on the National, an indie rock band originally from Cincinnati (now based, like practically every other hip American act, in Brooklyn) whose dense, anxious, melancholy songs have increasingly struck a chord with worlwide audiences as the 21st Century has worn inexorably on. Their major commercial breakthrough, the 2010 album High Violet, debuted in the top five in the U.S., Canada and the UK, and the major tour that followed provides the material for this film.

The man who provides the film is Tom Berninger, the younger brother of lead singer Matt Berninger. The other four members of National being two sets of brothers (guitarist twins Aaron and Bryce Dessner and bass-drums combo Scott and Bryan Devendorf), perhaps Matt felt left out and elected to complete the triangle in their moment of mass triumph. Matt asks Tom to join him on the tour as a roadie (he seems to lack any other gainful employment), and Tom decides to take a digital camcorder along to film what happens. Tension is evident from the outset, as Matt sits in a lawn chair in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park lecturing his younger brother behind the camera about his apparent lack of interview preparation or even a general plan for the movie.

Indeed, MistakenforStrangersMistaken for Strangers is an alternately funny and affecting exploration of these brothers’ relations to each other, which expands out from but largely follows the template of that first scene. Matt, the self-confident, famous and successful rock star with a lovely, supportive wife (Carin Besser, who has a co-editing credit on the film) and adorable daughter, overshadows his overweight, balding, single, career-less younger brother (who appears to still live with his parents and sings along to Rob Halford’s Christmas album alone on the tour bus) and is frequently shown irritably insisting that Tom get his act together, stop drinking, stop filming, stop being himself, etc.

Inviting Tom to be a tour roadie appears to have been a generous but perhaps misguided act of magnanimity on Matt’s part, a chance to give back to his ne’er-do-well metalhead drifter sibling, spend time with him at the height of his own accomplishment, and perhaps even suggest a future endeavour as well. Tom has precious little applicable experience nor the organizational ability required for the roadie position, however. The professional tour manager is doubtful, rides him hard from the start and eventually fires him for missing a tour bus departure time.

Tom seems much more invested in filming for his movie, and it’s evident that’s where his true passions and talents lie. But Matt could evidently not justify the tour expense of an amateur documentary filmmaker (who also happened to be his little brother) to his collaborators and co-funders in the group. Tom’s resume is indeed thin, consisting of an art department credit on Ang Lee’s mostly-forgotten Taking Woodstock and some homemade fantasy splatter films of highly dubious quality (he shows one of them to a disgusted Dessner brother at one point, to demonstrate his filmmaking “chops”). So he’s made a roadie who is (sometimes) allowed to film onstage and backstage proceedings, a precarious position which, well-meaning as it may have been, does Tom no favours.

Matt and the National play to sold-out crowds and are recognized around the world, hobnob with celebrities (when Tom doesn’t forget to put them on the guest list, at least), and even meet President Obama after performing for thousands at a re-election campaign rally in Madison, Wisconsin (they are shown playing “Fake Empire”, which was perhaps not exactly on message). Tom is disappointed at the lack of dissolute rock-star partying before he’s kicked off the tour and then struggles to finish the movie; Matt picks on his confusing colour-coded sticky notes used for editing purposes and a pre-concert screening of a rough cut of the movie is ruined by technical problems.

The movie gradually becomes a vehicle of redemption for Tom, a proving ground for his ability to stand on his own two feet as an artist even while inherently riding his rock star brother’s coattails as he does so. But it’s also more fully an honest document of a loving, respectful relationship between two brothers who would have every reason to resent each other deeply. If the friendly rancour of the first scene in the park sets the tone for the film, Mistaken for Strangers‘ final sequence rounds it out: Matt sings “Terrible Love” as he moves through the crowd of the theatre, Tom following behind to feed the slack of the microphone cord. Matt is the central focus, but Tom supports him and makes sure he can do what he needs to do. Matt returns the favour by enabling Tom to make a fascinating and artistically unique portrait of sibling relations.

Categories: Film, Music, Reviews
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  1. June 2, 2014 at 6:21 pm

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