Often we gauge our own success by measuring and comparing it to those around us. It is not right, but as humans it is some that almost comes as second nature. For some this measuring stick serves to spark a competitive and creative fire in them to achieve great things. Other opt for an introspective look at what changes they need to make in their lives. Deep down all we really want is to find something that allows us to shine brightly on our own and not constantly have to live in the shadow of others.
Such is the dilemma that aspiring filmmaker Tom Berninger found himself in. Tom’s brother just so happens to be Matt Berninger, the lead singer of The National. Considered one of the hottest indie rock bands working today, The National have amassed quite a following in the past ten years. Routinely playing sold out shows to crowds of thousands, and having the likes of Emily Blunt, Will Arnett and Werner Herzog amongst their fans, The National star status continues to grow. Matt’s growing success is in stark contrast to Tom’s whose own career rather stagnant.
Like most siblings Matt and Tom are vastly different in almost every way. Matt is the alpha male who seemingly excelled in everything from sports to music at a young age. Tom, on the other hand, is the goofy fun loving brother who rarely follows through with anything he attempts. Their differences are glaringly apparent when Matt invites Tom to be a roadie for The National as they embark on a yearlong tour to promote their album, High Violets. Tom jumps at the chance as he sees the tour as a perfect opportunity to make a documentary about the band. Anticipating a wild year of music and parties, he soon finds out that life on the road is nothing like he expected.
Mistaken for Strangers is one of those rare music based documentaries where the music is actually secondary. Knowing very little about the group The National, one might go into Mistaken for Strangers expecting a standard rock documentary filled with concert footage and behind the scenes antics on the road. Essentially something that we would see on a bonus DVD extra included with the bands next album. Instead what is presented is a film where the band is merely the catalyst for a fascinating tale about the dynamics between two brothers.
The film is ultimately a tale of Tom’s self-discovery. As Tom struggles to find the narrative in all of the hours of band footage he shot, it becomes clear that he is subconsciously trying to figure out his own place in the world. Tom’s lack of focus, especially in regards to his duties on tour, begins to wear on Matt who is trying hard to be supportive. Mistaken for Strangers provides an interesting look at two siblings who are trying to come to cope with the fact that their relationship dynamics are changing. Matt has always been the one to keep Tom on the right path, yet he must come to terms with the fact that his brother is an adult who he cannot order around like he use to. Conversely Tom is at a point where he must prove both to himself and the world that he is more than the goofy party animal who is riding his brother’s coattails.
Fans of The National may be annoyed with the fact that the band is not at the forefront of the film, but it actually turns out to be a wise choice. We get to view the band through the way they interpret Matt and Tom’s relationship. The band is both the subject Tom’s interviews and his sounding board for airing grievances about Matt. It is especially fascinating considering the fact that the rest of the band is made up of two sets of brothers.
Mistaken for Strangers is one of those documentaries that will appeal to audiences regardless of whether or not they have siblings. The idea of trying to find oneself while under someone else’s shadow, in this case an international rock star, is something we can all identify with. By focusing on his relationship with his brother instead of the music, Tom crafts a pleasantly surprising and poignant film. Mistaken for Strangers is one of the better music documentaries to be released in recent years.
Mistaken for Strangers plays NXNE on Friday June 14th at 4 pm at The Bloor Hot Docs Cinema