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Mistaken For Strangers | Review

Bound By Blood, Not Band: Berninger Tails Brother

Tom Berninger's Mistaken For Strangers PosterThe life of touring musicians has long been a favorite subject of documentarians the world over, but none previously have ventured so far from the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle as to trudge the depths of fraternal envy via such open-hearted self deprecation as Tom Berninger’s Mistaken For Strangers. The film began when Tom was invited by his brother Matt to come join him on a year long tour with his premiere indie rock band, The National, who, after a decade of under-appreciated touring have finally found their time in the sun, now selling out massive theaters around the globe. Matt’s moody baritone vocals and intense stage presence jut to the fore of their dreamily layered soundscapes, making the lanky crooner somewhat of a modern day rock star (as much as that’s possible in today’s micro-fragmented music scene). Tom’s official tour duties are that of the classic roadie, while his personal mission is to film a documentary about the band. Neither of which really work out, to the benefit of the resulting film which evolves from the zany travelogues of a touring lost soul into a self conscious deconstruction of documentary filmmaking that tethers rock-stardom with brotherly love.

To understand the nature of the film, you must first understand the dynamic between the brothers Berninger. You see, Matt has always been the golden boy – smart, athletic, driven, and now a beloved husband and critically adored rock star – while Tom, nine years younger, chubbier and goofier, has always been a lackadaisical dreamer – half hearted in all but the arts and lacking comparable success in any and all aspects of life. It’s immediately clear that Tom was plucked from complacency and given a job out of pity rather than skill set, but he takes it in stride, accepting it as the paid adventure that it is, expecting to experience all the legendary indulgences of his own beloved metal idols. With consumer grade camera in hand, he documents his attempt at the touring life like an uninformed tourist, posing along side cultural oddities while directing his brother and his band mates awkwardly about the frame. Always jovially enthusiastic and seemingly naïve in his filmmaking approach while in the moment, Tom reveals in the edit that he is indeed conscious of his immaturities.

Though he set out to document and compliment the monumental success of The National, Tom’s film instead explores the lovingly complex relationship between him and his brother by focusing on his own character flaws and amplifying their propensity in post-tour self reflection (though it lacks the moral complexities of Gimme Shelter, it echoes Mick Jagger’s on screen reflexive confrontation with the events that were captured on film). The final third of the feature is devoted almost solely to the existential crisis that became the construction of the film itself, the fledgling filmmaker unflatteringly portraying himself stricken with teary-eyed anxiety about the film’s reception amidst themes and locales laid out in color-coded sticky notes. Tom Berninger didn’t know it when he set out, but he was shooting the film he was meant to make, a concert doc warped in self discovery by way of editorial perspective. Though self acknowledged humor very much pervades Mistaken For Strangers, it is an overwhelming honesty and heartwarming brotherly admiration that leaves a lingering resonance in its wake. With a crooner’s cordial support, the film is an awkward bird, but given some time and loving attention it does indeed sing.

Reviewed on June 10, 2013 at  NXNE 2013. 80 min

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