The National opened their set at New York’s Highline Ballroom last night with “Oh Holy Night,” dedicating the tune to lead singer Matt Berninger’s brother, Tom, who was having his own evening in the sun, presenting his documentary, Mistaken For Strangers, at the opening of the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival.
“It was a gift to my mom, brother and dad,” Tom told Rolling Stone. (The film depicts him being told by family members to “get his shit together.”) And if the opening slot (and an introduction by Robert De Niro) is any indication, the younger Berninger seems to have done so.
Mistaken For Strangers stars indie rockers The National and veers away from the traditional rock-doc trajectory courtesy of Tom’s sincere tale of standing in a famous sibling’s shadow – one that includes drinking beers in an infinity pool overlooking Los Angeles.
“Early on, I wanted to make a goofball Beatles or Monkeys thing, because [The National] used to be known as a dark band. I never knew them as dark, so I wanted to make a film that had a light-hearted touch,” Tom told Rolling Stone after the premiere. “I was definitely a fish out of water in these big rock venues, but I knew I could be a cannon ball in their scene.”
In the film, Tom, 33, is depicted as a portly metal-head in dandruff flecked t-shirts, living at home with his parents in Cincinnati, Ohio. Despite a Zach Galifianakis-like, teddy-bear charm, he never lives up to his family’s expectations, and he’s single because he doesn’t have “the stuff” – the right clothes, bed, or plates that having a girlfriend requires. He embarks on a six-month tour with The National, tasked with making sure the towels are prepped and the Toblerone bars are stocked. But he’s still the little brother – nine years Matt’s junior – let loose on tour with a hand-held camera. He interviews band members everywhere from hotel showers to studio sessions with questions like, “Do you bring your wallet and ID on stage?”; “Who is the fastest guitar player?”; and “What kind of drugs have you done?” all the while struggling with his insecurities.
“I knew late in tour that some of the better stuff was me on camera,” says Tom. “I didn’t know at the time that I was going to open up and reveal my shit – I didn’t know I was going to be getting speeches from my mom.” The result is a doc that’s simultaneously a curious man’s look at the oddities of life on the road, an exploration of brotherly competition, and proof to the rest of the Berninger clan that Tom can actually finish something.
“All his life, Tom has had these amazing ideas that die on the vine because he feels like they’re never going to turn into anything,” older brother Matt said of his brother’s filmmaking process. “I didn’t care what kind of movie he made, I just said, ‘You are going to finish this. You are not going to stop.'”
After watching the film, he says he’s more sympathetic to how it feels to be a little brother.
“I get what that’s like now,” Matt said. “But I think Tom has realized I don’t have anything that he doesn’t have. I just had a bit more confidence. We’ve been a band for 13 years, and it’s taken a long time to get anyone to care about us. And we weren’t any good for the first several years. He’s learned to let something be bad for a long time and not walk away.”