I love music documentaries. I love the behind the scenes look these films offer, from the fly on the wall vérité style of D.A. Pennebaker’s works to the unabashed candidness of Martin Scorsese’s rock docs. These movies complement footage of their privileged view with uncut and uninterrupted live performances of music legends.
Thus, I was expecting this conventional format when I heard about “Mistaken For Strangers,” a new documentary about American indie rock group The National. Yet, I was delighted to discover this movie breaks the mold.
In my list of cinematic experiences, it earned the title of “best music documentary not about music but instead about the younger brother of a rock star” I have ever seen.
The documentary opened the Tribeca Film Festival last year to positive acclaim. The film’s director Tom Berninger, a fledgling filmmaker and younger brother of National frontman Matt, followed the group on its 2010 High Violet tour, who filmed everything he possibly could and couldn’t with a cheap Panasonic camcorder.
The results are a mixture of awkward and hilarious moments of Tom interacting with the band and its crew as a man with a camera but without a place on a tour throughout Europe and the US.
Tom is an engaging subject to follow: a Zach Galifianakis on “Between Two Ferns” type, with chubby humility to spare. I questioned whether I was watching “Portlandia” or a music documentary when the camera zoomed in to his spilt cereal and milk on the bathroom floor of the band’s Anytown, USA hotel room.
And Tom’s questioning of the band’s bandana-clad drummer on what drugs he has done is just one example of how his own juxtaposition with The National is wonderfully absurd.
The National is a band that I have often said is the classiest of them all—I mean, it doesn’t get much classier than songs with lyrics about Tennessee Williams (see “City Middle”) or a guitarist who produces classical music on the side (see “Kronos Quartet”).
The fun is cut short, though. Tom’s antics are deemed distracting and destructive by the crew manager, leading to his removal from the tour. After Tom’s departure, the true nature of the documentary comes out; this isn’t a story about a band—it’s a strong story about two brothers.
The relationship between Tom and Matt is riddled with contrast. Matt is famous, and Tom is not. Matt lives with his wife and daughter in New York, and Tom lives at home with their parents in Ohio.
The documentary paints a sympathetic portrait of the disparity between the brothers through the eyes of Tom and how dealing with a golden child big bro can be tough, especially dealing with one who has made it creatively when Tom had sputtered (see Tom’s gore heavy horror flick attempts) and failed to reach the same heights.
Interviews with the brothers’ parents only intensify the sympathy, as each parent talks about Matt’s triumphs alongside Tom’s shortcomings.
The stage is set for Tom to falter once again and fade into his own personal Midwest metal head obscurity, but I witnessed an underdog emerge. Tom is the underdog who musters all of his focus and energy imaginable to achieve one goal: to finish making the documentary.
This is where things become a little bit meta. I was afraid that the film would fall down the slippery slope of making a documentary about making a documentary, but the latter half of the film never focuses too much on the self-referentiality of it all.
One of the many kickers of this film is that by the end of it, you almost feel robbed.
It sets up the expectation that you were going to see a film about The National, with clips of full live performances and in depth interviews with all the band members. You wanted that, but only because that’s what every predecessor had done in the past.
Instead, “Mistaken For Strangers” demonstrates the versatility of documentary and how the medium can tell stories on any scale, big or small. This story takes one of the grandest scopes possible, an internationally renowned rock group, and uses it as a backdrop to tell an intimate story about a guy trying to make his mark in the creative world.
As a film student who has worked on documentaries before, I can understand the difficulty in hammering down a focal point with which to stick with when making a non-fiction film. This film is an example of how you don’t really know what a documentary is going to be about until you’ve finished making it.
As I watched the film, out of the corner of my eye I could see my friend’s face turn to disappointment. An indie-music buff, she was hoping for a re-embodiment of her beloved “Shut Up and Play the Hits,” a documentary about LCD Soundsystem that features the band’s final performance almost in its entirety.
Part of me—the part who adores The National’s music more than most other bands’—wanted this film to give me the steady dose of live concert footage that my friend and I were expecting.
However, I was pleasantly surprised to find a story with more heart than any other music documentary, telling a story about a regular guy, trying to reach a brief pinnacle of rock star glory—and succeeding, so to speak.