This is partly because the film is about the band The National, who I know very little about despite having every one of their albums, and partly because it’s not a traditional “rock doc”.
The entire documentary is filmed from the perspective of the singer of The National (Matt Berninger’s) younger brother Tom Berninger who, unlike his older brother, is a total nobody who still lives at home with his parents and behaves for the most part like an 11 year-old.
At the start of the documentary, Matt invites Tom to join the band on tour and help out backstage as a roadie for the band. Tom takes a video camera along to film the experience which results in some of the most candid, funny, cringe-worthy and intimate moments I’ve ever seen in a documentary.
For the most part though, people who aren’t die-hard fans of The National might find the first half of the movie difficult to watch. Tom fumbles his way through a series of totally random “interviews” with the band juxtaposed with shots of them playing and scenes of Tom making one colossal fuck up after the next whilst the band’s crew members shout at him to please turn the fucking cameras off.
An amazing thing happens as the documentary passes the midway mark though. On an almost subconscious level we start to see the bigger story that’s unfolding, one of Tom’s endless struggle to make some kind of meaning, some kind of success out of a life he’s spent living in his brother’s shadow.
I would definitely say to anyone watching this documentary who feels like switching it off halfway and dismissing it as a boring, amateurish attempt at documentary film-making, not to.
The emotional heft of the last thirty minutes of Mistaken For Strangers is considerable and provides an unparalleled insight into The National as a band, their life on the road, Matt Berninger as a reluctant, pensive frontman and above all, the relationship between two brothers who, despite their considerable differences, love each other a great deal.
If I had to sum up my thoughts on this documentary having watched it, the only way to do it would be by stealing the line that Tom has Matt say at the end of the documentary after dramatically wiping the steam off a bathroom mirror so Tom can go in for the close-up on Matt’s eyes.
“The National is everyone’s now.”
If you’ve ever heard a National song and felt that deep down ache somewhere inside, that restless desire, that maddening lonliness, that defiant fury then I have no doubt you’ll connect with, and enjoy, this documentary.
Final Verdict: 8/10