Often when a reportedly good music documentary comes along, the central question is usually along the lines of “do you have to be a fan of the band to like this?” with the assumption that if the answer is no, the film is better for having transcended its subject. While I feel we hear this claim made about ‘rockumentaries’ more than it’s actually true, Mistaken for Strangers most definitely a film that fits the description. Taking its name from a 2007 single by acclaimed indie rock band The National, the band really just serve as a backdrop for a universal tale of family bonds.
The film’s director is Tom Berninger, the younger brother of The National’s lead singer Matt Berninger (oddly, the other 4 members of the band are two sets of brothers). Unlike his rock star sibling, Tom, 9 years his junior, still lives at home and doesn’t appear to have achieved much except for making two amateur horror movies that were never released in any capacity. He bares an obvious facial resemblance to his brother, but is portlier, scruffier, and never as smartly dressed. Matt invites him to come on their latest tour as a roadie, and he gladly accepts, planning to film the events for a documentary on the band.
Tom’s filming style appears to involve carrying his camera around constantly and pestering anyone else on the tour whenever he comes across them. His preoccupation with filming results in him not performing the actual tasks he’s supposed to be particularly well, and other tour staff become visibly angry with him at times. Tom’s lack of professionalism endears him to the audience though. His exchanges with other band members and enjoyment of being on a tour result in plenty of very entertaining scenes, including a few real highlights when Matt loses patience with him. Ultimately, his careless ways inevitably lead to him being kicked off the tour, but despite this, Tom’s always a relatable presence. How would you feel if your always-cooler older brother was a rock star? At one point he’s directly told that the only reason he’s there is because he’s Matt’s brother.
It’s mentioned that Tom actually is ‘more of a metalhead’ and doesn’t really like The National’s music at one point, but he never seems to be out to ridicule the band. Mistaken for Strangers gets in enough concert and studio footage of the band performing to give you a general impression of what they’re like, and their songs are also used as background music, but the relationship between Matt and Tom is always the film’s primary focus, their parents are also interviewed. You can tell that Matt does care about his brother though, as when the tour if over, he invites Tom to stay in his house to complete the film.
The film always has a certain meta-level to it, there’s a lot of talk directly about the film from participants throughout, but it comes to the forefront later on. Tom starts to feature the editing process of the film itself as a part of it, and with Matt’s assistance comes to realise that their relationship should be the film’s subject rather than the band. This development never feels as contrived as it might sound in writing, as they both seem genuine and Tom shows his addition of his more embarrassing moments to the film.
In the guise of a rock band tour documentary, Mistaken for Strangers is a brief chronicle of The National, while being the universal story of two brothers, and the underachiever’s attempts to finally do something that might take him out of his brother’s shadow.