Driving down the comic side of the road at this year’s AFI DOCS festival is “Mistaken for Strangers,” a tour bus feature for The National, the Cincinnati-born, Brooklyn-based indie rockers comprised of two sets of brothers and lead vocalist Matt Berninger. Berninger’s younger (by nearly a decade) and hunkier, slovenly brother Tom is a self-proclaimed horror action movie buff and home-brewed filmmaker of very obscure odd-ball videos (“From the Dirt Under His Nails,” “Wages of Sin”) that have eluded notice by the Internet Movie Database. He’s also an occasional production assistant on a few film and tv projects.
But, lo and behold, he has created a genuine keeper and has crashed that bus right into the AFI Silver for the film’s DC-area premiere. It’s an endearing, entertaining look at group from the inside out. And upside-down. As well as a considerable step up from “A Skin, A Night,” Vincent Moon 2008’s gloomy look at the musical group when it was making its fourth album, “Boxer.”
Mere seconds into the film you’re nearly rolling into the aisles as the the brothers bicker over the plan and organization of the film you’re about to see. While Matt might have been wondering about that discussion when the scene was shot, I suspect Tom knew exactly what he was plotting. Or maybe it was dumb luck. There’s a feeling of ebullient anarchy about the screen—like watching an old Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson comedy—sprinkled with just enough b-roll footage to provide the rudimentary information about the band. Tom, asked by his brother to be a roadie on the band’s upcoming year-long tour, gladly signs on, smells the tossed-about unlaundered clothing in his room for the pieces with the least offensive stench, and climbs aboard.
Yeah, he’s oafish and calmly and irreverently self-centered, but his admiration for his brother and the group is genuine. He’s often in his own shots (or solicits other members of the band or crew to shoot him), listens in on phone calls and conversations, or just watches others in the group practice, albeit defiantly interrupting them with inane questions. “How fast can you play?” he tosses to guitarist Aaron Dessner. To Aaron’s brother, Bryce, he provides nutty stage directions. Bassist Scott Devendorf and his drummer brother Bryan get pepper-sprayed with Tom’s loony queries. And tour manager Brandon Reid provides the filmmaker with his roadie chores and the dos and don’ts of his position. We’re watching and listening as this unfolds for the audience, but it’s apparent, as the short, 75-minute, film progresses, that Tom isn’t a very capable member of the crew.
As for the performance footage, it’s brief and fine. You do get to hear a good portion of “Vanderlylle Cry Baby” and a rousing version of “Terrible Love” flows over a live audience just before the end credits (which has Rob Halford’s rendering of the Christmas carol “Oh Holy Night”). Is a live soundtrack album in the offing? While there are no songs performed in their entirety, you get a good taste of The National’s style, energy, and their adoring fans.
Heading into London, Berlin, and beyond, Tom comes under constant fire for slacking off on his work obligations because of his obsession with filming the group, or for drinking massive quantities of beer. On a stop in Madison the band performs at a Re-Elect Obama campaign rally, and there’s a realization that this is a truly glorified home movie. Tom doesn’t get to meet or film the Commander in Chief, alas. (Note: If you want home movies of the White House, catch Penny Lane’s “Our Nixon” at AFI DOCS for her astute assembly of such footage made during Tricky Dick’s reign at the White House.)
It’s hard to say if Tom Berninger could make another film that clicks like this one, at least one which keeps him out of the frame. Tom’s a clown (versus his golden boy brother), and unsettling in his intrusiveness, yet ultimately harmless. His on-screen antics makes one wonder if he has ANY sense of direction. Yet, he has made an adorably lumpy movie. Go figure.
He does have a crazy knack for capturing the good with the mostly bad (at least for Tom, who gets pushed out of the tour). So, 50 minutes into the film, the band disappears (but only briefly) and Tom picks his parents’ brains. His mother offers us that Matt was a lot easier to raise. (Doh!). Adorable moments ensue as Tom heads to his brother’s Brooklyn home to finish the film. Lots of creative process Post-It input ensue, to the bemusement of Matt’s family. It gets stranger and calamitous and wondrous as the filmmaking process explores itself in the last part of the doc.
Yes, this is a documentary about The National, but it’s just as much about a band of loving brothers. While it has the heart and soul of Tom, it is the film’s producers, including the entire band and Matt’s wife, Carin Besser (who also is credited as a producer and co-edited with Tom) who are the village that supported this fun project.