By Jason Rothauser
In the film’s opening sequence, Matt Berninger, nattily dressed in a three-piece suit, fusses with a beach umbrella before finally settling down for an interview in the park. Berninger is the lead singer of The National, an indie rock band who toiled for years in obscurity before making it into the spotlight and to the top of the Billboard charts. His interviewer is his brother Tom. He starts with a few odd questions (“Do you ever get sleepy on stage?”). Things are not going well.
“Do you have a notebook?” Matt asks his brother. “With questions written down? Do you have any kind of organisation and plan for this film?”
Thus begins Mistaken for Strangers, a documentary that began as a behind-the-scenes look at The National before morphing into something very different. The filmmaker is Matt’s brother Tom. While Matt has reached rock stardom as the lead singer of one of the most successful indie rock bands, Tom still lives at home with his parents in Ohio. Matt is tall, thin, composed. Tom is overweight, disheveled, and an amateur filmmaker whose efforts have been limited to zombie schlock-fests on homemade VHS tapes.
When Matt invites his brother to join their European tour as a working roadie, Tom jumps at the chance, and takes along a handheld video camera. He keeps it rolling for much of the tour. At first, Tom’s only ambition is to perhaps produce some documentary footage for the web, but he soon latches onto the idea of creating a full-length feature film.
While Mistaken for Strangers does in fact feature plenty of backstage footage of the band as they tour Europe, this is not a concert documentary or even a documentary ultimately about The National. It quickly becomes clear that Tom doesn’t know what he’s doing, either as a roadie or as a filmmaker. Tom, decked out in plastic sandals, Motörhead t-shirt, and ubiquitous drink in hand, is ready for a party. He’s expecting rock-star debauchery, but he’s quickly brought down to earth by the business-like efficiency of the consistently professional band. His drinking becomes a problem (“Remember your allergy!” brother Matt scolds as he grabs a beer out of Tom’s hand), and it’s only a matter of time before Tom is fired. He keeps the camera rolling for his painful exit interview.
But the story doesn’t end there. Instead, Tom turns the camera, and the focus of the film, on himself. How does it feel to live in the shadow of the limelight? To live in your parents’ garage while your big brother becomes a rock star?
Tom’s stint as a roadie shoves this disparity right in his face, and he lives out every painful bit of it on camera with unflinching (and endearing) honesty. A highlight moment features the band playing for President Obama (their song “Fake Empire” was a campaign theme and the band has played at various campaign rallies). Tom is corralled backstage by Secret Service agents while the rest of the band meets and has a photo taken with the president. Tom is crushed that he’s not included. “Do you think its because of my DUI?” he wonders.
Ironically, Tom’s failures elevate what could have been a routine concert documentary into something much more. And while the film has something serious to say about ambition, family, and failure, there is never any danger of it taking itself too seriously. The filmmaker’s entirely guileless personality and bizarre questions replicate the absurdity of This is Spinal Tap, and Tom even manages to ask some questions that music fans might be curious about, but thought were too dumb to ask. “Do you carry your wallet when you’re up there performing?” he asks the band’s bass player. The answer is “yes.”
Documentary filmmaking is full of happy accidents. The brilliant Capturing the Friedmans, which examines a sensational case of child abuse and its effects on the titular family, had its origins in a documentary about children’s entertainers (family member David Friedman is a professional clown, and the filmmaker came to learn his story when getting to know him in that capacity). Mistaken for Strangers similarly rises from relatively humdrum origins to add up to something much more than its original ambitions. You don’t have to be a fan of The National, or even know who they are, to be profoundly entertained by this warm, human film. And if you happen to be an underachieving younger sibling, photos of a smiling Tom Berninger presenting his (much-lauded) movie at the Tribeca festival may just give you some hope.