The National formed in 1999, and since then the group has crawled and clawed their way to success. Their first two albums were released to a resounding silence. 2005’s Alligator gave the band a small following and critical praise but they did not break through until 2007’s Boxer. Since then, The National have gone from playing tiny shows in Whelan’s to (most recently) the Point Depot and the Iveagh Gardens and to two chart-topping albums. Avoiding the hubris of a typical rockumentary, the band have gone an unusual and fascinating direction. Tom Berninger (brother to Matt, the chief lyricist and frontman) is brought on their European and American tours to work as a roadie. He is a jack of many trades – helping with setup, arranging the guest list, keeping the fridges full, etc. – and master of none. He quickly becomes the scorn of the tour manager who is constantly reprimanding him for his shortcomings as a tour assistant. All the while, Tom is making a documentary about the band. At least that’s what the band thinks. Tom’s experience and abilities as a filmmaker are under question and before long the film is plunged into an editorial hell. After much soul-searching and fact-facing, Tom begins editing the film we are watching and framing it around his relationship with his much older, and much more successful, brother.
The rockumentary model has been a successful and tried process. U2 have done one. The Rolling Stones have done many. Even The National have (sort of) done one. 2007’s narrative-free A Skin, A Night is another experimental film showing the band recording and performing songs in obscuring photography and muddled soundtracks. In Mistaken For Strangers The National, in a bold and creative move, have become supporting players in their own film. The film is centred entirely on Tom. As an audience, we develop a bond with the director and his goofy charm after a series of misadventures working on the tour. Tom is frustrating, messy, forgetful – a complete nightmare to have as an employee. He even gets left behind somewhere in middle Germany after he gets off the tour bus. These situations – which may or may not be staged – show how there’s little Tom can do right. The film he’s making about the band has everyone perplexed without a narrative or theme to latch on to. Instead we get a covert film about a man in arrested development rather than a vanity project for a rock band. The conflicts of brothers who have gone down vastly different paths is a fascinating subject. This is no better exemplified in the group’s quick meeting with Barack Obama at a political rally and Tom bemoaning why he didn’t get a chance to shake the president’s hand.
There are musical movies that are open enough for audiences to appreciate who don’t like the music. Much like The Devil and Daniel Johnston (a film charting the devastating effects of schizophrenia) and Anvil (a wonderful affirmation of friendship and passion), Mistaken for Strangers is another to add to this list. There are very few musical performances in the film and when there are – particularly the climactic scene – it’s to tell the story of the Brothers Berninger.
Mistaken for Strangers is not your average concert/rock band film. There are no grandiose performance scenes. Berninger instead hijacks the film to dissect and analyse his own self-destructive behaviour and his feelings of inadequacies around his successful brother. There are moments of riotous humour, cringeworthy catastrophe and poignant tenderness. Mistaken for Strangers might not win new fans for The National but it just might win a few for Tom Berninger: filmmaker.