A secret service member glances at Tom Berninger, our filmmaker/protagonist/underdog hero, and gives him a piercing glance of total disregard, waving him to get out of the way in such a fashion that both rigidly instructs Tom and potently ignores the fact that he exists. It’s such a brief yet powerfully condescending look, and puts us directly in the shoes of someone who is invisible while surrounded by those who are hyper-visible.
Moments later, Matt Berninger, Tom’s brother and lead singer of the successful indie rock band The National, tells Tom, “I’m sorry you didn’t get to meet the President.” Matt is achingly sincere in this sentiment, yet you can tell he hates the fact that such an unavoidably haughty-sounding sentence just tumbled out of his mouth.
Mistaken for Strangers is less a tour documentary about a successful rock band, and more a chronicle of one dude’s attempt to accomplish something in the shadow of his far more successful brother. It’s Don’t Look Back by way of American Movie: an intimate behind-the-scenes portrayal of rock stardom, but framed by an intoxicating irreverence that relieves the film of any stuffy adulation that so often burdens many rockumentaries. Who would have thought a band as solemn and tortured as The National would be involved in a documentary so surprisingly funny and unapologetically sincere?
Central to the film’s success is Tom, an admirably genuine, lovable schlub and bad luck magnet who has yet to realize that the secret to success in adulthood is pretending to be an adult against all evidence otherwise. Tom is a pathological younger brother, forever comfortable in yet routinely flustered by his lifelong position of subordinance.
Tom has chosen to accompany his brother’s band throughout their 2010 “High Violet” tour, which saw The National fill giant venues for the very first time. Tom brings a camera with the intention of making a documentary he has not yet formed a conceit for, and this camera (and the aimlessness with which he wields it) quickly becomes a character of its own. It’s at once a comic prop that places musicians, celebrities, and stagehands in awkwardly self-conscious positions, yet it also cements Tom’s own subjectivity, allowing us to not only see what he sees, but also how the world sees him. The result is a pitch-perfect tragi-comedy that plunges the wide gulf between being famous and knowing someone famous.
Tom works the tour as a roadie, yet he’s quickly flustered by the fact that the rock star lifestyle consists more of grueling travel, on-your-toes problem-solving, and interchangeable hotel rooms than an endless party. It’s difficult for him to get a substantive conversation about music from his brother, who clearly loves Tom but is strained by the compounding family baggage that his presence brings to the tour. So the would-be filmmaker settles for interviews with songwriter/guitarist Aaron Dessner, and parties with drummer Bryan Devendorf. (It’s worth noting here that Dessner and Devendorf each have brothers in the band, thus layering upon Tom’s outsider presence his status as the only sibling on tour who is not in the band.) When Tom is inevitably fired from the tour, he uses the circumstance as an opportunity to evaluate his life, his ever-interrupted pursuit of artistic expression, and his complicated relationship with a famous and successful older sibling.
The film Mistaken for Strangers is the subject of Mistaken for Strangers – namely, the filmmaker’s effort to complete it. Mistaken for Strangers is both Tom’s Fitzcarraldo and his Burden of Dreams: a product and record of his ability to complete something ambitious and, thus, a test of his self-worth.
We’re never quite certain whether Tom even likes The National – and despite some choice footage of the band’s more-often-than-not great live shows, it doesn’t really matter. Tom loves his brother, and is as floored by the fact that his brother is on stage just as he is made invisible by that fact. Mistaken for Strangers is only a rock documentary to the extent that Tom must cope with the reality of his brother’s conspicuous fame and success. And as a result, the film realizes an incredible and ambitious character arc despite a runtime that barely squeaks by the seventy-minute mark before the credits roll. And this arc only works because Mistaken for Strangers gives not a flying shit about The National the band, which makes it the most surprising and incisive music documentaries since last year’s Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer.
Yet despite the sincere fraternal love on display here, the film’s vague undercurrent of performance should be taken into account. For a filmmaker and subject so seemingly oblivious to how adults function, Tom the filmmaker has an incredible ability to cut a scene in a way that punctuates Tom the character’s punch lines. And where the camera acts as an extension of Tom himself in some scenes, in others that same camera captures heightened moments between Tom and Matt filmed by an unacknowledged third party.
Toying with constructedness and realism in rock documentaries has been around at least as long as D.A. Pennebaker, but there’s something tonally disjointed in the way that Mistaken for Strangers suggests a playful irreverence not only directed at The National, but to documentaries themselves, yet at the same time presents itself as a raw account of one man’s journey to self-reliance. The film trusts in the camera’s ability to capture authentic interactions and emotions, but only by keeping itself at a distance and never taking the filmmaker or the film itself too seriously. Thus, a layer of irony – that never fully develops – persists underneath this overt appeal to self-making.
Perhaps this has something to do with the film’s circular, meta structure: Tom Berninger the filmmaker asks us to love Tom Berninger the character that the filmmaker has made, yet Mistaken the Strangers never disentangles the two. This is perhaps the most convincing piece of evidence that Tom has become a filmmaker by the film’s end.
The Upside: A very funny and clever rethinking of the music documentary that refreshingly displaces the music
The Downside: The film’s slow realization of a Charlie Kaufman-lite conceit doesn’t mesh fully with its unfettered sincerity
On the Side: The National’s song “Mistaken for Strangers” is never played in the film (or, at least, to my memory)