Kindness of ‘Strangers’: 6 Things We Learned From the National Doc
1. Lead singer Matt Berninger has a brother.
As anyone who’s been following the Brooklyn-by-way-of-the Buckeye-State band (or who read their extensive New York Times Magazine profile back in 2010), the National is made up of five members, with two sets of brothers: guitarists Aaron and Bryce Dessner, along with drummer Bryan Devendorf and bassist Scott Devendorf. Singer, songwriter and resident supermoody dude Matt Berninger is the group’s odd man out, musical sibling-wise. But he, too, has a brother: Tom Berninger, a sort of amiable, slightly doughier version of Matt that’s nine years younger and still lives at their parents’ home in Cincinnati. (Matt and Tom also have a sister, who’s absent from the movie.) The two were close as kids but, after Matt moved to New York and his band became critical darlings, they drifted apart a bit. So while the National was touring behind their 2010 album High Violet, Matt asked his baby brother to work as a roadie for them. Tom also took along a camera, with the hopes of making a documentary about the experience. Neither of these decisions end up working out as planned.
2. Tom was not a huge fan of the National. He’s also not much of a roadie.
It’s not like Tom hates the band, per se; as Matt tells a radio interviewer, his baby brother is more of a metalhead and probably thinks “indie rock is pretentious bullshit.” This doesn’t stop Tom from gleefully accepting the offer to travel throughout Europe with his rock-star bro and get some quality time. As anyone who’s ever been a roadie for even a moderately successful group, much less one that’s selling out Radio City Music Hall, will tell you, the fact that you’re running around getting towels and making sure band members have their Toblerones does not mean you’re actually in the band. Nor does it mean that you can shrug off your duties in order to film stuff, annoy the tour manager or get so drunk that you forget to get on the tour bus — even if the singer is your brother. The more Tom sees the band do what they do best, the more he starts to appreciate their majestic indie-mope-rock sound. As for the roadie thing, that doesn’t end up going quite so well.
3. Not all rock stars act like the Rolling Stones in Cocksucker Blues when they are on tour.
Actually, most of us already knew this, or could have guessed as much. For Tom, who associates being in a band with the use of party as a verb, the fact that the National aren’t acting like Jagger and Richards circa ’72 is mind-boggling. You guys are in a successful rock band; where are the groupies and mountains of Bolivian marching powder?!? (Sure, Matt likes his glass of Merlot, but….) Despite what Matt calls his brother’s “allergy” to alcohol, Tom films himself hitting the sauce and gravitates toward Bryan, who he thinks is the nearest to leading a typical “rock-star life.” Does this enable the brothers to bond more? Is this a rhetorical question?
Matt and Tom Berninger Talk ‘Mistaken for Strangers’ After Tribeca Film Festival Premiere
4. Just because your brother leads a successful band does not mean you get to meet the President of the United States.
Tom finds this out the hard way, when the National play at a Presidental rally in Madison, Wisconsin. (Where they play, of course, “Fake Empire.”) The band gets a picture with President Obama; Tom does not. Is it because they did a background check and saw I had a DUI?, he asks. Matt assures him it’s solely because he is, you know, not a member of the National.
5. Werner Herzog is a fan.
We know this because Tom films the German director hobnobbing with his brother after a show in Los Angeles — the same show that Tom lost the guest list for, which included Herzog, Matt’s in-laws and the cast of Lost. Also a fan: Emily Blunt, John Krasinski and Will Arnett, who seems a little bewildered that some dude is shoving a camcorder in his face. Famous people love this band!
6. Just because you can’t make a decent rockumentary doesn’t mean you didn’t make a good documentary.
This seems contradictory, right? Hear us out: If you come to Mistaken for Strangers looking for a portrait of what makes this band tick, or an origin story, or a tale of how a bunch of NYC transplants once played to an empty Mercury Lounge and now headline the Barclays Center, you will not find it. That’s what a rockumentary would do. This movie most certainly does not do that. Watch the exclusive clip above; asking penetrating questions may not be Tom’s strong suit.
But in terms of a documentary portrait of the brotherly ties that bind, Strangers couldn’t be more compelling. Matt invited Tom to go on the road in an attempt to incorporate him into his world, and you can see both of them trying to make it work. Later, Matt and his wife let Tom crash in their spare room so he can focus and edit the raw footage into something comprehensible. (Tom is not a documentarian, really; his previous movies have tended toward microbudget, lo-fi horror flicks.) A rough-cut screening is disastrous. But his brother is there for him, comforting him even as he lays into the filmmaker for not checking the theater’s tech a day ahead of time. “Why are you crying, it’s just a rock documentary?”
By the end of the movie, however, it doesn’t feel like it’s just a rock documentary at all. This is about something else besides a band and a tour. It’s about two grown men trying to reconnect and find the bond they had when they were growing up. Making the movie, it seems, helped them do it. The last shot rewinds back to the tour, following Matt as he does his wade-into-the-crowd thing while singing “Terrible Love.” Behind him, making sure his brother has enough microphone cord to make it to the back of the theater, is Tom. He’s helped him out. They’ve helped each other out. They’re no longer strangers.