July 12, 2014

Mistaken for Strangers

Tom Berninger, 2014
Underachiever Tom Berninger, the less successful younger brother of indie-rock band The National's front-man Matt Berninger, joins the band's crew as a roadie while also attempting to shoot a documentary about the band with Matt's blessing.

Anyone who has a brother understands the concept of sibling rivalry. There is a sense of relentless competition that never really fades with age. As you get older, you have different successes. As you see these particular successes it's not difficult for you to still envision your brother as the child-version of himself. It's no different in the Berninger family where Tom has seen his brother go from gaunt Ohio boy to the lead singer of one of the biggest bands in the modern Indie Rock scene. Since then, Tom has largely lived in Matt's shadow. While Tom is not without his own artistic abilities (his impressive comic-like work posted alongside his brothers abstract piece in his mothers office), much of his life has consisted of listening to Heavy Metal on head-phones in his parent's basement while attempting to complete several low-budget indie horror films. He is someone that has some interesting thoughts and ideas but never manages to organize them enough so that they materialize into something constructive. When he decides to create a documentary focusing on his brother's band, you don't get an immediate sense that it's a well-thought out production. It could easily become another one of his unfinished projects. You soon see that Tom's documentary is not so much about the band much more about the dynamic between himself and Matt. He humorously interviews the band-mates who find it odd that he continues to press them on questions about Matt and not about the music.

But Tom's experiment largely succeeds because he has a bona fide charm to him, a sense of innocence. While he may be annoying the various staff associated with The National, he is inadvertently capturing some fascinating moments and providing some accessibility to a band that is mostly known for Matt's baritone vocals and melodramatic tones. Tom doesn't ask the typical interview questions. He doesn't let the camera hang on the stage and bore you with an obligatory music video. Peaking behind the curtains as the band is sleeping on the tour-bus. Capturing that moment where Matt loses his temper and pushes over a curtain rack because he is unhappy with that nights performance. He even effectively captures his own inner conflicts and shortcomings with the band's production crew, as he finds himself complicating matters rather than simplifying them. When you see Matt jump off the stage and venture into the crowd with the microphone, you see Tom following him not far behind attempting to grasp the mic cable which is so beautifully metaphoric.

Mistaken for Strangers may not be Tom Berninger's coming out party, but it's certainly a great piece of work that he can hang his hat on. His extraordinary eye combined with his impressive editing abilities manages to create a film that Michael Moore has said is "one of the best music documentaries I have ever seen". Moore is a polarizing figure known to embellish, but is not off base with that particular comment.

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