Overview: Tom Berninger’s attempts to roadie for and film a documentary about his brother Matt’s band, The National. Starz Digital Media/Abramorama; 2013; 75 Minutes.
The Family Element: Every core member of The National has a comparably brilliant brother in the band—except for lead singer Matt Berninger. “You know Lynyrd Skynrd? When he died…” Tom Berninger, newly-invited roadie for The National, begins a strange anecdote before the first show, “…he had his brother take over the band.” Tom is an overweight metal-head who lives with his parents, the kind of guy who messes up the lyrics to his favorite music, who leaves his shirt on when he swims in a pool, who drinks Jagermeister even though an “allergy” makes him susceptible to reckless intoxication. Tom Berninger is also the director and star of Mistaken for Strangers, which is set against the backdrop of The National’s biggest tour to date.
The Band: At the forefront of this film, two brothers fight like brothers. Behind that, the film captures the deserved mountainous peak of one of the world’s greatest bands. Because Tom is our guide, this success is contextualized in the most surreal and hilarious way. At one point, Werner Herzog and the cast of the TV show Lost are left outside for forty-five minutes because Tom loses the guest list to one of the shows. One of my favorite scenes of the movie occurs after Tom is rushed out of the room when President Obama comes in to meet the band. Tom and Matt sit next to one another in the car, framed in the perfect snapshot of physical family resemblance, and Tom speculates that he was rushed out of the room over a DUI he received ten years before while Matt passively apologizes and promises that “next time” he’ll try to help his brother meet the President of the United States.
More than a Rock Documentary : In varying degrees, this film recalls the greatest rock documentaries. It has the whimsy and tour dysfunction of This is Spinal Tap, the therapeutic dysfunction of Metallica’s Some Kind of Monster, the familial sincerity of Anvil, and the same measurement of indie music genius found in Wilco’s I Am Trying to Break Your Heart. At other times, it’s not a rock documentary at all. By focusing on the struggle of a family black sheep living in the shadow of his genius brother, the movie presents Matt Berninger in a way that is both humanizing and mystifying and presents Tom Berninger as a sympathetic everyman who reaches his goals, in a meta-theatric twist, through our enjoyment of his film.
Overall: Mistaken for Strangers is a fantastic movie in both unique and traditional measure; at turns, it is hilarious and touching. Tom Berninger has made a film that he can be proud of, and more importantly, a film that his family and new fans can also be proud of.