The touching, hugely enjoyable documentary Mistaken For Strangers takes its name from a track on Brooklyn-based indie rockers The National’s album ‘Boxer’, and it proves to be a pretty apt title with regards to its shambolic director/editor/star/court jester Tom Berninger. Paunchy, with a taste for alcohol, and still living with his folks back in Cincinnatti, Ohio, Tom was asked by his infinitely more famous older brother Matt (the band’s lead singer) back in 2010 to join them on the biggest tour of their career to date. A budding filmmaker with a couple of no-budget horrors under his belt (“...this one’s about a barbarian with an identity crisis who goes on a murderous rampage”), Tom failed spectacularly to perform his crew duties adequately, but managed to capture acres of behind-the-scenes footage on his digital camera.
The result plays like a cross between American Movie, This Is Spinal Tap and goofy comedy The Man Who Knew Too Little, in which Bill Murray’s clueless tourist constantly embarrasses his slick brother. Tom’s a likeable, if terminally immature guy, and his constantly intrusive, self-reflexive footage often makes for hilarious viewing. There’s also something slyly subversive about the way this professed heavy metal fan pricks the moody sensibility of the band by making individual members pose for ludicrous introduction shots, and peppering them with relentlessly inane questions (“Do you carry your ID on you onstage?”, “So how famous do you think you are?”). Yet despite the humour, a sense of pathos develops, as Matt, who already has enough on his plate, has to act as a father-figure for this overgrown child increasingly prone to self-doubt.
Unlike the infinitely more self-serious Shut Up And Play The Hits (about James Murphy, leader of NYC dance-punk scenesters LCD Soundsystem), the mostly upbeat Mistaken For Strangers doesn’t demand that you need to be a fan of the band to appreciate the film. Sure, there are a few scenes of The National in action but, true to the tone of the rest of the film, they are noisy, in-your-face blasts captured by Tom’s intrusive camera. And even if you’re not sold on the band’s brand of doomy, guitar-based hauteur, you’d be hard pressed not to be captivated by their frontman’s visceral performance style. Contrary to his (mostly) composed offstage persona, he seems to be permanently on the verge of spontaneous combustion onstage.
Ultimately though, the music takes a back seat to the more universal stuff: family, brotherly love, responsibility, growing up etc. And despite its rough appearance, it gradually dawns on us that we’re watching a pretty smart, meta-textual work, too: an intelligently structured making-of doc about the film we’re actually watching, which reveals plenty about its key figures – not to mention the many vagaries of the creative process – along the way.
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'Mistaken for Strangers' is released in UK cinemas on 27 June. For more info, head here.