Film Review: Mistaken for StrangersFunny and self-effacing doc says more about its maker's insecurities than the rock tour it chronicles.
Less a rock-doc than a surprisingly affecting look at sibling dynamics in a creative family where one brother is vastly more successful than the other, Tom Berninger's Mistaken for Strangers chronicles his experience on the road with his big brother Matt's band, The National. Offering enough behind-the-scenes material to attract that group's fans, the film also benefits from Berninger's willingness to show, in one episode of comic irresponsibility after another, why he hasn't turned his own artistic talents into a sustaining career. While the resulting doc remains a niche film commercially, its niche is broader than that of the average band-on-tour film.
Those expecting a performance film will be disappointed: While such popular songs as "Fake Empire" do make appearances here, Strangers eschews start-to-finish performances in favor of short onstage montages capturing the flavor of live shows without really documenting them.
The film is much more interested in what's going on backstage, at the hotel, and on the tour bus as seen through the eyes of someone who's simultaneously insider and outsider: Though Tom Berninger has little affinity for his brother's's music (he's "more of a metalhead") and appears never to have done this kind of work, Matt hires him as roadie for the band's world tour. His responsibilities are minor -- make sure the dressing room has towels and booze, get the musicians to stage on time -- but even these tasks get in the way of Tom's self-assigned role as tour documentarian. We watch as indulgence turns to exasperation, with the band's full-time staffers begging him to stop filming them and go do his job.
Tom develops onscreen as an endearing slacker, unable to submit to mundane chores when they conflict with his rock-and-roll fantasy. Being the frontman's brother, he rather understandably expects to be able to enjoy the perks of stardom; trouble is, the actual musicians are much more serious about their work than he is. Far from indulging in John Bonham-style decadence, Matt Berninger and his bandmates (with the possible exception of drummer Bryan Devendorf) are shown as professionals who don't have time to accommodate the newbie's misbehavior. Things begin to go south when, at a Los Angeles show whose attendees include Werner Herzog, Tom loses the guest list and strands VIPs outside the venue.
As both roadie and filmmaker, Tom loses his way -- Strangers becomes the story of a man whose family wants to support him as he struggles to do something with his life. In between Tom's moments of frank self-analysis, we see enough of his awkward approach to interviews -- asking the bandmates to feign moments of insight for the camera, posing questions that are either banal or have more to do with his own envy than with their career -- to understand how important Berninger's collaborators were in finding a thematic thread in all this scattershot material. Poignantly, Tom embraces that theme when it presents itself, reworking his footage to show himself in an unflattering light and acknowledge how much leeway his brother has given him. He closes the doc with a lovely bit of concert footage -- Tom trailing Matt as he ventures into the crowd, making sure the mike cord doesn't get tangled as the rock star emotes for his audience -- that distills this unusual case of sibling rivalry into a single lingering image.