Documentaries about musicians are popping up everywhere these days. Hell, one (Waiting for Sugar Man) even won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in 2013. Most tend to focus on a musician's obscurity as in Sugar Man, a band's last hurrah as in Shut Up and Play the Hits, or a band's rise and fall (and subsequent return) like loudQUIETloud. Tom Berninger's quasi-doc about The National, Mistaken for Strangers, is nothing like any of these...and this is precisely why it's so good.
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It seems as if the film is supposed to be a standard doc about a band on the road. Shot (mostly) and directed by the brother (Tom Berninger) of The National's lead singer Matt Berninger, we get a familiar scenario - little brother is asked to go on tour with big brother and help out doing roadie type stuff, mostly acting as liaison/assistant to the band. Tom still lives with his parents in Cincinnati and while we don't get much of a view into his life, we can tell that he doesn't have much going on. And there's nothing wrong with that. Frankly, this is one of the reasons this movie hits so many high points. Tom has a perception of the rock star lifestyle like so many of us do, you know, sex-drugs-booze fueled mischief that may lead to snorting ants or something. But that isn't what we see. The National's tour is quite tame, with some drinking but nothing that lives up to his perception of the rock stars of yesteryear. For most of the film, Tom ambles through the tour not quite living up to his role, drinking too much and in general not taking what he does seriously. He films when he should be working, shirking his duties in order to get footage for the film, angering his brother and the band's manager. His excessive drinking (which Matt refers to as the "the allergy") gets him into more hot water and when the bus leaves him behind at a bar after a show, that's the last straw. He is technically fired and leaves the tour, but continues to work on the film.
After the band returns from the tour, he moves in with his brother and his family (wife and daughter) to finish the film and record more footage of them recording their newest album "Trouble Will Find Me" released this past year. The dynamics between the brothers is noticeably less confrontational than it was while on tour, but Matt, in a scene that hilariously opens the film, urges his brother to find a direction for the film as it seems he is just flying by the seat of his pants without an agenda or blueprint for what is filming. Once he has a rough cut of the film, he screens it for friends, family and the band before a performance. In typical Job-like fashion, the film cuts out in the middle and the screening is never completed. Teetering on disaster, Matt encourages Tom to complete the film, finally finishing something that he started, a theme that resonates in Tom's life as confirmed in interviews with his mother and father in the film. So what starts out to be a road trip doc about a mid-level band making waves in the rock world really turns into a story about two brothers and their relationship.
This film is funny, sad, frustrating and wonderful all wrapped up into a 75-minute story. It encompasses what I love about the documentary form - you never know what you're going to get. Formula is thrown out the window as this film really follows no narrative rules and probably should work as well as it does. Shot mostly on a hand-held HD camera by Tom Berninger and Matt's wife Carin Besser, the film has an amateurish quality that really succeeds since it so reminiscent of the home movies of all of our youth. And one can't help but to cheer for Tom as the film unfolds because you can tell the guy just needs to catch a break.
If you are into The National as a band or have an interest in watching two brothers hash out their problems (one happening to be a famous singer), then this is a film for you. Also, you get some really interesting famous people cameos as an added bonus (Werner Herzog, Emily Blunt, John Krasinski and Will Arnett to name a few). Overall, this is a very solid and unexpectedly touching film and like I said, it's definitely something different in the documentary arena.
He is Jeremy Harmon aka Spirit of the Thing aka Harmonov. Once a Van Damme/action movie devotee, he now prefers to delve into small budget, independent and foreign films. Jeremy maintains that Slap Shot is the best movie ever. Follow him on Twitter @harmonov or read his new blog @ http://spiritofthething.