By Jess Cavallaro
Released in 2013, Mistaken for Strangers documents the life of indie-rock band, The National, while also portraying brotherly bonds. There are five members in the band. Two of them are Dessner’s. Two of them are Devendorf’s. And one is a Berninger. However, there are two Berninger’s and even though the second Berninger is not in the band, he is in the documentary. In fact, he films, edits and stars in the movie. Matt Berninger, lead singer, and Tom Berninger, filmmaker and younger brother by nine years, embark on a journey that will be documented forever. Not only is Tom’s purpose to film, but he is also there to help with backstage tasks: putting out towels, water bottles, set lists, arranging the guest lists, etc. Together, Matt Berninger (vocals), Bryce Dessner (guitar), Aaron Dessner (guitar, keyboards), Scott Devendorf (bass) and Bryan Devendorf (drums) become The National.
There were a variety of mediums and materials used in the movie to portray all aspects of touring with a band, but, more importantly, touring with a band that includes your brother. The film shows footage from the barrier, from the back of the venue, on stage, and backstage of their live performances all while audio from an interview plays over top. Matt is conducting a phone interview as Tom is talking directly into the camera almost as if we are eavesdropping on Matt’s conversation together. Quick close-up footage cuts of the band members playing live are shown as a song by the band plays. Different combinations of mediums are used throughout the film to show the diverse layers of the music business and The National’s role in creating and producing music.
The vast majority of the documentary uses raw footage captured by a hand-held video camera. Cut to Matt brushing his teeth. Cut to Bryce and Aaron getting dressed. Cut to Scott in the shower. Cut to wife Carin Besser and daughter Isla. It is almost as if the viewers are watching The National home movies. These personal touches directly relate to the vibe indie-rock music tries to emulate; there is a prominent DIY aesthetic displayed throughout the film. On the other hand, the film also uses professionally shot footage to prove the band’s credibility while still maintaining the DIY aesthetic. Cut to the band doing a photo shoot on the beach. Cut to Matt taking a picture with fans as he is walking the streets of London. These individual, but collaborative medium choices capture the band’s relationship dynamic and prove why The National is a force to be reckoned with.
The movie begins by describing the band—their fame, their relationships, their origins—while then immediately diving into their yearlong tour, starting in Paris and ending in Brooklyn. As the tour progresses, so does the story. Light is shed on life as a “rock star”; however, the “rock star” depicted in this documentary is not your typical rock star. “I am disappointed there isn’t anything crazy going on,” Tom says to Scott as they wrap up their conversation regarding what drugs they have tried.
Viewers are exposed to group dynamics and individual tensions. Matt is also a main focus throughout the film. At one point in the documentary, there was a technical problem during the band’s set and after the show was over, Tom followed Matt back to the green room. Tom wanted to get Matt talking, but he was just too irritated to even acknowledge him while also being aggravated by the video camera’s presence. The camera then followed Matt as he arrived at the green room, only to find a clothing rack directly in front of the door. Matt tried to push it out of the way and then proceeded to furiously push over the rack, slamming the door as he entered the green room. “Matt goes into a weird zone to deliver the show; it’s the job,” wife Carin said. “You have to learn not to take anything he may say or do before or after a show personally.” Brothers Aaron and Bryce discuss how usually when the band is being interviewed the majority of the questions are directed to Matt. “He frustrates me, but definitely never fails to surprise me,” says Aaron.
The viewer learns more about the band’s Tour Manager, Brandon Reid and his relationship to the band and to Tom. From Tom’s perspective, he believes that his sole purpose of being on tour is to film for the documentary while Brandon believes that Tom is on tour to work. This causes a lot of tension between both Tom and Brandon and brothers Tom and Matt. The film also features interviews from the other four band members: Aaron, Bryce, Scott, and Bryan; they not as well known as Matt due to his center stage location and presence and distinct vocal abilities. According to Scott, the band will not be a band in forty years. Tom was very surprised to hear this response from one of the members. He was also surprised to learn that Scott always keeps his wallet in his pocket when he is performing live.
Throughout the film, there is fear from Tom that he will not live up to his brother to create a film that will make everyone proud. “I want to make something good for him [Matt], for the band, for myself,” says Tom. Unfortunately, there were some road blocks before his statement became possible. Eight months into the tour, Tom was fired from his backstage job because he missed the bus, causing a major time hindrance. Then, six months after that Matt invited Tom to Brooklyn to finish his movie. There was a rough cut screening, which ended in disappointment due to technical issues with the video. This caused a lot of tension in the Berninger household, but it also allowed both brothers to express raw emotions. “Thinking back to that memory made me realize my brother sees something in me that sometimes I don’t see in myself,” said Tom.
As I sit here, staring at my computer, with Spotify open, my headphones in, and The National playing, I think of all the times their music has given me a voice when I felt voiceless. “It takes us two years to make forty-five minutes of sound,” says Scott. But, to a lot of people around the world, those
forty-five minutes can be life changing. One of the last things that Matt discusses in the film is the humiliation he felt when no one would come to the band’s early shows. However, that only led them to become more driven to pursue their dreams. Once the band members had put all of their raw emotions—tension, humility, anxiety—into their music they started to notice an increase in concertgoers. Matt Berninger stated, “For people who started coming to shows those were the things they connected with.” It is also why the band deserves the recognition that this documentary provided for them.
For more information visit http://www.mistakenforstrangersmovie.com/