Mistaken for Strangers is another documentary about a band that is less about the music than about the front man. Earlier this year, The Lamb of God: As the Palaces Burn told us a little about that eponymous group’s music, but a lot more about lead singer/writer Randy Blythe surreal imprisonment in the Czech Republic. Earlier this month, the film Pulp gave us one full song, a few interviews with Jarvis Cocker and lots of talking-head fans.
In Mistaken for Strangers we hear less than five minutes of The National’s music as they set out on their High Violet album tour. The novelty here is that the film is less the National’s now famous lead singer/songwriter Matt Berninger, than it is about Matt’s younger brother Tom, whose debut film this is.
The National is, quite literally, a band of brothers. Aaron Dessner (guitar, bass and piano) and Bryce Dessner (guitar) are brothers, as are Scott Devendorf (bass, guitar) and Bryan Devendorf (drums). Lead singer Matt also has a brother, but Tom has nothing to do with the band.
All that is about to change when, on the eve of his biggest tour to date, Matt invites Tom to join the band as a roadie. Tom is given strict instructions about what he is to do (anything asked of him) and what he must never do (go on stage, talk to important people, annoy people and disappear). But one of Tom’s problems is that he hears does not listen. He takes his camera along and, like a character in a ‘found footage’ film, is constantly getting up everyone’s nose. When he pokes his camera where it is not wanted one time too many, Matt is forced to send Tom home to mum in Cincinnati.
Mistaken for Strangers is as strange as it is self-indulgent. There is however, humour to be found in this self-indulgence, which is, after all, the point of the film. Tom’s interviews with other band members and crew revert back to himself, as the though he were too self-absorbed and insecure to really care about anyone else’s replies.
There is, to be sure, sibling rivalry in the brothers’ relationship that we can all recognise, but it is not a level playing field. While Tom plays the fool and gets hopelessly drunk, Matt is becoming rich and famous. You get the impression that Tom is not bothered whether he annoys you or makes you feel sorry for him, as long as he makes an impact.
While there is humour and poignancy to this story of the outcast brother in a band of brothers, those unfamiliar with the National’s music will want to be rewarded with a taster. Alas, this is not to be. Stingy excerpts fade, by the end, into a clip of what can only be described as concert footage with no sound track. Is this a rights’ issue or Tom’s revenge?
Joyce Glasser – MT film reviewer