Mistaken for Strangers (2013) is a rockumentary like no other: a behind-the-scenes expose of indie rock darlings The National from the perspective of Tom Berninger, the younger brother of the band’s lead vocalist, Matt. Tom previously only had a couple of zero-budget horrors under his belt (including a film about a murderous barbarian with an identity crisis), but now he’s the director of one of contemporary music’s most sweet-natured and naively hilarious road movies, that shimmers with the irresistible pleasures of stardom before evolving into a poignantly touching portrait. The National formed in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1999, consisting of two pairs of siblings alongside baritone vocalist Matt.
In 2010, just as the band were about to embark on their largest ever tour, Matt invited his brother, Tom, to join the band as a roadie. Tom decided to take his camera with him and document his experience, hoping to ‘find himself’ in the world of rock and roll excess. What begins as an opportunity for the brothers to bond, emphasised Tom’s numerous insecurities, ultimately revealing the vastness of the shadow his brother’s fame had cast. Funny, touching and genuinely moving, this deeply personal approach plays out like a curious amalgamation of a conventional band biopic with a sprig of This Is Spinal Tap. By wearing his heart on his sleeve and exhibiting an unflinching degree of honesty and passion, Mistaken for Strangers traverses the banal hero worship and reverie of an orthodox music documentary.
While it may all sound like a true life version of Almost Famous (albeit with less sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll) there’s plenty of fun to be had along the way, most of it, admittedly coming from Tom’s inane interview questions (“How famous do you think you are?”). However, behind his obnoxiously immature approach, Tom is an incredibly congenial character, making for an entertainingly affable guide into the surprisingly mundane world of indie rock stardom. Ultimately, Mistaken for Strangers is a film about sibling rivalry and the roots behind the creative process. Underneath all this humour a sense of pathos for both of the brothers rapidly develops; Matt for his humble role as the father figure to his brother and Tom as he grows to accept his place as Matt’s younger, less successful (but not necessarily less talented) brother.
This disconnection from the music means newbies to The National can still enjoy the show, with the band remaining fairly anonymous throughout. Those that haven’t already fallen for the band’s melancholic indie rock may well do after viewing the film’s live performance, each thrillingly captured, with the band’s distinctive brand of loud, dejected guitars uniting with the charismatic and visceral energy of frontman Matt to create a fervent and intoxicating stage show. With music taking a back seat to more universal and relatable issues of brotherly love, creative catharsis and generational malaise, what could have been a narrow, cultish feature pans out into a far broader tale of longing and belonging. Mistaken for Strangers is a rare, indulgent treat.
Mistaken for Strangers is released in UK cinemas from this Friday. For more information, please visit dogwoof.com.
This review was originally published on 12 October 2013 as part of our London Film Festival coverage.