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Sunday, April 20, 2014

Review: Mistaken for Strangers



"So, where do you think the band will be in 50 years?"
"50 years? Uh..."
"40. In 40 years?" 


Tom Berninger, younger brother of The National's singer Matt Berninger, might be the worst candidate to helm a documentary capturing a behind-the-scenes look at life on the road with the band. He's not a fan of the music, for one - he considers the indie rock scene "pretentious," according to Matt, and is more of a metal fan. He also has no idea how to interview the band members about what they do: every poorly-asked question ("So how famous are you?") ultimately leads into a personal story or rambling of his own ("Well, you're more famous than my friends"). 

Thanks to some clever editing and self-degradation, though, the heaps of footage about life on tour with the National, seen through Tom's filter, actually become a film about something unexpected. This is a movie about Tom, and what it's like to be the younger, slacker, perpetual screw-up brother of a successful musician. Mistaken for Strangers is a movie that requires no knowledge or fandom of The National to enjoy, and actually leans much closer to the "Mockumentary" style of film-making, conjuring comparisons to This is Spinal Tap and even television shows like The Office. If Michael Scott went on tour with a band and tried to make a movie about it, this is pretty much how it'd turn out. Except Tom Berninger is real, and he's hilarious. 

The documentary opens with Tom at home, explaining his passion for making action and horror movies. His brother has given him an opportunity to join the band on an international tour, and although Tom will be there to work in an official capacity as a crew member, the band has agreed to let him film the experience for a documentary. Tom's vision of the film and experience is probably the worst-case scenario of what this movie could have been: a cliched story about drugs, sex and parties. As the tour begins, Tom quickly learns that for the band, this is work: they're more interested in whether Tom has procured all of the food and drink listed on their rider than doing drugs backstage or drinking with him after the show. Their "coffeehouse" vibe disappoints Tom, who resorts to filming himself drinking alone in the tour bus while rocking out to Judas Priest. 

As Tom's lack of interest in doing his job correctly sabotages his place in the crew, tensions grow between Tom and Matt. This is where the film veers into a much more personal and interesting place. Tom vents about his brother's moodiness and perfectionist tendencies, and in his interviews with other band members, who are anxious to answer actual questions about themselves and their music, Tom inevitably turns the Q&A into a personal therapy session, venting about his childhood resentments. 

In the midst of some soul searching, Tom interviews the band, his family, and everyone he can, wondering: What is the difference between Matt and I? What is is that makes him so much more successful in everything he does? The success of the film hinges on these moments and Tom's willingness to completely expose his vulnerabilities and flaws. 

Behind-the-scenes documentaries about musicians are a risky proposition, tending to appeal only to hardcore fans. Even as a huge fan of The National, I hands-down prefer the approach of Mistaken for Strangers, which gives fans of the band just enough to feel like personal insight, while still offering non-fans an interesting and funny story with a ridiculous, self-absorbed, but ultimately lovable and talented protagonist who has finally stepped out of his brother's shadow. I give it an A. 


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