Mistaken For Strangers is not really a music doc, nor is it a concert doc or even the slightest bit about The National, a band which features prominently in the film. It is a tour doc, though, only one about a tagalong rather than the artists on the bill. The director, Tom Berninger, is the much younger brother of Matt Berninger, frontman of the newly successful rock band The National, and he’s been invited — more like hired, with nepotistic favor — to be a roadie on the group’s biggest tour yet, to Europe and then back through the U.S. He takes the gig with hopes that it won’t be too much work, that he’ll be able to experience the party life that’s stereotypical of musicians on the road and also that he’ll be able to shoot a documentary of the whole thing.
Whether or not he intended that documentary to be more conventional and more concentrated on The National is unclear in the finished product, though it seems as much, and from what I’ve heard that is the case. Somewhere along the line, however, it was evident that this is a personal film, a cinematic memoir of Tom’s time on tour with his brother’s band. By the end, we’re seeing so much of Tom’s efforts to finish the feature that it also becomes very much a film about the making of itself. That meta quality is certainly not a rarity in first-person documentary, and while some familiar with the genre might see similarities to the recent Paul Williams Still Alive, it’s closest in premise with Tell Them Who You Are, Mark Wexler’s 2004 film spotlighting his father, legendary cinematographer Haskell Wexler, and their relationship.
As with both of those films, the initially primary subjects of Mistaken For Strangers see the camera, and the person behind it, as a nuisance and quite incompetent. Yet here there’s an interesting disparity in what is being thought of Tom on screen (including, at times, by himself) and what should be thought of him off. In the film, he does appear to be an idiot, an amateur, awkward and sloppy — the very first scene, for instance and for purpose, is a shot of Matt sitting in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park being interviewed by Tom (heard but so far unseen) and it’s a mess; Tom can’t seem to get an actual question out, and Matt starts criticizing him for his obvious lack of preparation. Yet we’re watching the documentary, which quickly looks to be very cleverly shot and put together. It’s not an accidentally great film. It is a great film.
Throughout the on-screen story we see Tom being a fuck up. He’s not responsible enough with his roadie duties, he gets reprimanded a bunch by both the tour manager and Matt about his drinking and preference for filming everything and he says and does a lot of uncomfortable things, including in the way he shoots and conducts his interviews with the rest of the band members. We watch more scenes of what would be behind the scenes — set-up material and discussions of what they should do — than those actual scenes, which had they made it in would just be the usual kind of content found in a tour film or other rock doc. Near the end of the on-screen story, there is a moment of revelation when Tom sits down to cut the movie and he shows to Matt and wife Carin Besser (credited as Tom’s co-editor on the film), as well as to the audience, his professionalism in the form of his method of organization and compilation. But, outside of the on-screen story, because each moment of the movie has already been a revelation in that there was obviously some competence in the end, it’s not that surprising.
Still, it’s a reminder that docs, especially those involving a story that can’t be totally envisioned ahead of time, are made in the cutting room. In addition to the Besser credit, Tom apparently had editorial help from two-time-Oscar-nominee Marshall Curry (Street Fight; If a Tree Falls), who served as executive producer, plus talented pros like Matthew Hamachek (If a Tree Falls), Jeff Seymann Gilbert (The Overnighters) and Lorena Talpan (The Purge). While it’s easy to assume from what’s in the movie that Tom is a total amateur, even and maybe in part because of what he shows us of his prior directorial efforts, all cheesy low-budget horror flicks, the truth is he is a film school graduate and has at least some production assistant credits to his resume (including a gig on Curry’s Racing Dreams). This is surely his most ambitious project, but he’s no hobbyist with just the tools and no know-how.
Mistaken For Strangers isn’t exclusively a film about the making of a film. It has a lot more of an emotional center than most docs of its kind. There’s a heartfelt narrative on the surface regarding the bond and the disconnect between two brothers, one who is not only more famous but also plainly more quantitatively successful than the other. The film’s making is part of that, of course, in that the doc is Tom’s way of proving himself, accomplishing something and maybe even getting an advance in notoriety in the end to further his career. Occasionally we meet the siblings of celebrities in biographical docs, but I don’t think there’s ever been something so in-depth about the feelings of inferiority and envy that such relatives may have. There’s some of it in Wexler’s film — fittingly too, given how we can compare his mediocrity with the medium compared to the talent of his father — but Tell Them Who You Are is too direct about those ideas, and it’s also limited to them.
Part of Berninger’s subtler exploration of the familial theme, at least before he starts interviewing his parents about the fraternal issues, may be in that he wasn’t at first making a doc about the relationship between two brothers. If he was, I would have hoped he’d have gotten relevant address of the two pairs of brothers in The National. Matt’s bandmates are guitarists Aaron and Bryce Dessner and, in the rhythm section, Scott and Bryan Devendorf, respectively on bass and drums. Tom gets in one little moment of curiosity about which of the Dessners can play faster, but most of the time when he puts any of them on screen it’s to talk about Matt or himself. The doc could use at least more acknowledgment of the two other fraternal relationships in the story, if not a better analogical understanding of their relationships’ similarity or difference. Tom does, however, seem to try to get the band members to talk about the way Matt, as frontman, is like a more famous brother for them, as well.
Anyone looking for this to be a film about The National and their music might be disappointed — I don’t even think the bits of concert footage, or least not all, feature the audio from the soundboard (or maybe the band really sounds that raw live) — but hopefully they come away being first amused and then touched and ultimately wowed by Tom Berninger, on and off screen. Mistaken For Strangers is not a revolutionary music doc by any means, and not just because it’s not necessarily of the genre. It’s not a radical piece of documentary at all, of any sort, but it is one of the most memorable and also one of the deepest in its complexity as far as this particular sort goes.