Mistaken for Strangers

mistaken for strangers.jpg
UK Release Date 27th June 2014
Director Tom Berninger
Starring The National
Runtime 75 Minutes
Certificate E
Reviewer Si
Reviewed 3rd November 2013 (LFF)

This is Spinal Tap has a lot to answer for really. A probably never to be exceeded high water mark in mockumentary filmmaking, it opened the door to so many debates over the merits of turning it up to eleven. Rather than just making the ten setting louder. Because eleven would be louder you see. Never gets old.

Mistaken for Strangers isn’t a mockumentary but that’s not to say that at times you do wonder whether the whole thing is, you know, yanking your chain a bit. It’s just so incredulous that it can’t be true. Can it? Well, the answer to that is very probably that it is in fact true, but it has definitely been edited in such a way as to highlight the sheer craziness of the whole thing. That is not a criticism, I loved this film.

The National aren’t exactly a massive name over on this side of the pond. Formed in 1991 and finally releasing a record in 2001, it wasn’t until 2010’s High Violet that they really broke through into the mainstream. Fast forward to 2012 and they’re meeting the President of the United States. In 2010 the band embarked on their breakthrough tour. They needed an extra roadie. Step forward Tom Berninger. The National are made up of two sets of brothers and frontman Matt Berninger. Definitely the more sensible of the Berninger boys (and the eldest), he asks Tom along to give the band a hand and pretty much just to help get his brother out the house. Tom is something of a lost soul it would appear, a man child who never quite finishes anything. That is, somebody we can all relate to. At some point in the conversation it would appear Tom misread ‘roadie’ for ‘documentary maker’ and so he brings along his camera with the idea of documenting the band’s rise to fame on the road.

It’s a miracle this movie ever got made and having watched it, and listened to Tom talk afterward, you have to think this was predominantly down to co-editor Carin Besser, Matt’s wife. What began as an attempt at documenting the band gradually morphed into a more successful attempt at a confessional movie, mostly about Tom making a film. It avoids being a self-flagellating mess because Tom is such a magnetic character. It’s impossible to dislike him or even judge him harshly for riding his brother’s coat tails. At one point he confides in his brother that everyone just thinks he’s on the tour because his brother is in the band. Matt frowns and responds that that is exactly why he is on the tour. It’s not a point of conflict or a sour note, it’s just a matter of fact statement and does nothing at all to knock Tom from his path.

Along the way, Tom does make attempts to interview the other, increasingly bemused members of the band. The interviews break down roughly into two types. Earnestly hilarious questions; at one point he asks one hapless member if he takes his ID and wallet on stage with him and rambling questions largely about himself whilst the band member sits uncomfortably watching on. Both are genuinely funny and you have to respect the band members’ patience with the inane questioning. Matt Berninger comes across particularly well, though you suspect that any scenes with his apparent temper shown in full have probably been excised. Even on that basis, his affection for his brother comes through as genuine. You start the film assuming he is just giving his brother something to do but by the end of the movie you can see how desperate he is for his brother to find something he loves doing.

When he’s not attempting interviews, Tom is probably the worst roadie ever employed. Constantly late, missing the tour bus because he’s out partying, complaining that the rock band aren’t rock ’n roll enough, drinking beer and not paying or it, failing to provide towels (when it’s pretty much his only job) and sulking when he doesn’t get to meet the President. It’s astonishing that he doesn’t come across as objectionable but his lost soul honesty shines through.

Mistaken for Strangers could easily have come across as a vainglorious attempt at self promotion from the younger Berninger but through sheer enthusiasm and genuine innocence he has managed something far better. That this is basically a therapy session masquerading as a rock documentary is beyond doubt but by the end, I didn’t care a hoot about that. This is a wonderfully off the wall documentary that (probably inadvertently) ends up being a hugely relatable journey for its main character. We all share the same doubts that Tom carries through this movie and I bet more than a few men who watch this will see a lot of themselves in the insecure, listless younger brother. Certainly more than see themselves in the confident, successful elder brother. 

Towards the end of the movie, as Tom is shown attempting to edit the hours and hours of footage together, he sits in front of a wall full of post-it notes, confessing to the camera about his doubts of ever being able to finish the movie. The most prominent post-it in the background just says 'Afraid of Everyone?'. It’s a song title from The National’s 2010 album but could just as easily be an assessment of Tom’s state of mind. Since then he’s shared the stage with Robert De Niro at the Tribeca Film Festival opening night. I don’t think he’s afraid of everyone any more.

Check out the trailer here.

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