I like The National’s music, and over the last decade they have become one of the world’s great indie rock bands. When given the opportunity to watch an insider documentary of the band’s tour of Europe following the release of High Violet, this reviewer couldn’t help but be excited. Directed by well-meaning but incompetent roadie, Tom Berninger, the younger brother of the band’s lead singer, Matt Berninger, Mistaken For Strangers becomes something else entirely. For better and worse.
In moments of despair at his own inability to finish the documentary, Tom turns the camera on himself in a self-reflexive study as he struggles to find his place in the world, fulfill his own artistic aspirations and break out of the shadow of his big brother. It becomes a film about the creative process, of how an amateur filmmaker took on the challenge to make a rock documentary, and the bizarre experiences that aided and abetted the realization of that dream.
While the concert footage is electric, much of Tom’s own hand held footage is throwaway. It is a travel diary of sorts but often it isn’t what we see on camera (sloppy shots of the floor pretty often), but what we hear that is important. But, it also includes near-worthless captures of Tom fooling around. With promises of putting together a documentary of his brother’s band in action and providing insightful backstage access, he is invited along as a groupie and given roles. But he is too preoccupied with his camera, expecting to be involved in everything (from meetings with President Obama to parties with celebrities like Will Arnett) with camera at the ready.
A lot of the footage is of his brother asking him to turn the camera off, or him being reprimanded for shirking his tasks. When he becomes a subject – and interviews with Matt as well as Tom’s mother and father reveal he is very talented, but seems to have lost his way – it actually becomes more interesting, but far less watchable. Matt convinces him to finish the documentary and throughout the final third we see him struggling through the editing process. Tom is both frustrating and sympathetic. He is a fun, likable guy with his heart in the right place, but seems blind to his ineptitudes and unwilling to accept his responsibility to The National in a professional sense.
Mistaken For Strangers is an entertaining documentary. It is frequently funny and of course the music is great. What can’t be overlooked is that a portion of the 80 minute run time is the editing process bleeding into the film. You admire Tom’s courage to be honest about his inadequacy as a filmmaker, but the film is nonetheless, disappointing.
[rating=2] and a half
Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22