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Movies / Music PopWrapped | Movies

The National Presents Mistaken For Strangers, A Rock-Doc With Heart, Humor And Honesty

PopWrapped | PopWrapped Author


04/04/2014 6:38 pm
PopWrapped | Movies
The National Presents Mistaken For Strangers, A Rock-Doc With Heart, Humor And Honesty
Media Courtesy of

Bill Sweeney

Staff Writer


Up front, I should tell you that Mistaken For Strangers is not the type of "Rock Doc" that many fans of The National will be expecting. It is not a documentary focused on the grueling, mind numbing months on tour. It's not about showing you really cool concert footage where you get to hear renditions of all the bands best songs. It's a not a journey into the creative process of indie rockers trying to wade through some ego-war while assembling a new album.  Those things do appear to a degree, but it is certainly not some over-considered, fan pandering artificially designed to bring you “inside” the band. It's better than that, perhaps because it's barely even about the band and in fact,  does not require that you even know of them. It has a beating heart of sincerity, that by the film's end, is subtly thumping an indirect message about siblings and their looming shadows, because ultimately, and unintentionally, it's more about Tom Berninger. Rising from Cincinnati Ohio, The National is something of a band of brothers, the five member group consists of Aaron and Bryce Dessner, Scott and Bryan Devendorf and lead singer Matt Berninger. At the films start, the group is finally breaking through in a big way, garnering the acclaim and attention all rock bands strive for, indie or otherwise. With a year-long tour looming, Matt reaches out and asks his younger brother Tom if he'd like to go on tour and be a roadie. For Tom, it's an opportunity to connect and spend time with a brother he rarely sees and since Tom is actually an aspiring filmmaker, he's bringing a camera along with the intention of making a documentary about the band. That artistic intention starts earnestly enough, but Tom is an ever-smiling amateur at being a documentarian as much as he is at all aspects of touring and being a roadie. He has a slight goofiness to him that at first made me wonder if some of his awkward behaviors and questions were just a put on. He's has the camera on himself too much. He asks odd questions of those he interviews. He tries to set up shots too often. That doubt of his genuineness washed away watching him struggle with finding and knowing his place on the road, trying to balance his desire to constantly film with his actual responsibilities as a lead roadie. In Paris, camera in hand, he tries to offer compliments to Brandon Reid, Road Manager and Sound Engineer, after one of the bands biggest shows so far and gets swiftly reminded of his place. "Brandon, that was awesome, sounded amazing. I captured some pretty good stuff." He says with a smile you can just hear. "That's not your job description. Have you checked your job description?" Brandon sharply cuts him off. There a few scenes like this where you can tell the crew, and even the band, are being nicer and more patient with him then they normally would if he weren't Matt's brother. Matt, at a later point, has to remind his brother that, in truth, Tom is only there because they are brothers. The whole experience is so new, the dynamic so varied for Tom, that at times, he becomes lost in it. He's crew, but he's not. He's family, but he's crew. He wants to drink a few beers but he can't. He shouldn't. He's got the "allergy" that makes alcohol a bad idea, Matt reminds him. And we do see a few "allergic reactions" before all is said and done but it's not only the booze that does Tom in on this tour. It's a latent ability to fumble the ball. It's his inexperience in the jobs handed to him. It's the camera distracting him from doing those jobs. The sense that he can only fumble so much before they pull him off the crew, is thickly in the air. All along, there is a slow examination of the relationship between Tom and Matt, usually at the prodding of Tom's interview questions. He keeps coming back to it because he's slowly seeing a different side to his famous brother. But as the tour rolls on, Tom's mistakes get bigger and more inexcusable. He looses a guest list. He gives Matt a hard time about not being allowed to film celebrities visiting backstage. Finally, it's when Tom misses the bus call, and the bus has to go back for him because he stayed at the bar, that things come to a head and Tom is kicked off the tour. Back in Ohio, Tom continues to process the tour experience and his relationship with Matt, and with himself. It's while talking to his parents that the differences between them are again spoken aloud, but crystalized. Matt is successful, more serious. Tom is not successful and probably not serious enough. He may appear the "slacker" type in comparison, but as his parents remind him, Tom is filled with as much talent. Tom's path to redemption starts six months later, when the tour ends and Matt invites him to New York to stay there and finish editing the movie. But soon, Tom hits another crack in the road when he screens a rough cut of the film for family and friends, it's a wake up call that sends him, literally, back to the start. Tom reviews footage from Paris of Matt talking about the band's early days, about when they realized that when they put their "tension and anxiety and fear and humiliation into the music" that they finally made a true connection, to each other and to the audience. And it is then, only then, that Tom finally sees the through-line his film needs. He needs to include his journey of mistakes, the "warts and all" approach, admit to himself and the camera, how he feels about his brother, himself and his faults. That can be the hardest thing for anyone to do, yet it is always how the best art is made. By boldly putting yourself out there one challenges the limitations that restrict success. By doing that, Tom's story becomes the story, thus creating a somewhat meta re-contextualization of what was just witnessed. There arises a sly brilliance to it all as we see that Tom's awkward missteps were actually leading himself, and the film, to a place brimming with truth, understated creative clarity and unexpected humor. Mistaken For Strangers is a true to form documentary that creates its own story, as many good docs do, with a simple idea that takes on its own life, teaches the filmmaker more than they had imagined at conception, and reminds you that everyone's story is a little like your own. See it soon. 1hr 20min‎‎ - Documentary/Comedy‎. Director: Tom Berninger. In theaters now, available On Demand and itunes.  


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