Mistaken for Strangers Movie Review
Highly-acclaimed indie band The National are currently touring Australia. Preview screenings of Mistaken for Strangers, a documentary shining a light on the band, are coinciding nicely with the tour. We sent Heather Vousden along to check it out:
Mistaken for Strangers is a touchingly honest and comical story of two different brothers, which differs greatly from the norm of a typical rock documentary. The film kicks off in 2010, just after the band’s fifth album, High Violet, has been released and is propelling the band’s success after ten hard years. They are preparing to embark on one of their largest international tours, so lead singer Matt Berninger invites his younger brother Tom to join the band as a roadie, unaware of Tom’s plans to film everything as it unfolds.
A number of tracks off the High Violet album are part of the soundtrack to the film. This was the album that introduced me to The National. It was the record that lured me in and led to me playing them on high rotation for a big part of 2010. I found myself instantly swept up, falling head over heels for the heartfelt, often sorrowful and compelling arrangements, alongside the charismatic vocals. The mood of the album suited me at the time, as I felt like it encapsulated the emotions I was feeling. After I fell in love with this album, I delved into their back-catalogue and found something quite different. The emotional connection wasn’t as strong. I could see a band that had worked hard on their creative and emotional journey transporting them to where they are now, and this is shown in the movie when footage of old gigs are shown, as Matt describes their initial struggle to draw an audience over the slow building decade preceding the release of High Violet.
The film presents an honest account of Matt and the pressure he feels to entertain large audiences. The Matt Berninger I envisaged singing those lyrics was quite different to the Matt I saw in the film. He is almost unaware of how famous he has become, due to the sudden success. His humility is evident when questioned about how famous the band has become. Backstage you can see the fatigue and the frustration he feels as his brother pesters him with novice questions. It is only when Matt is on stage performing that you see him fully let go; releasing the built up emotion, which appears to come from the pressure of his heightened fame, and the demand to entertain at such a great scale. You see the freedom his music creates for him. Although frustrated at some stages, his affection and admirable patience with his brother is also captured.
The film tells a relatable tale of sibling insecurities. Matt and Tom are at very different stages in their lives, both creative individuals, and are almost complete polar opposites. Tom, Matt’s younger brother by nine years, is a loveable metal-head and bedroom filmmaker. In his early thirties, he is still living with their parents in Cincinnati making self-financed short horror and action films. Tom isn’t much of a fan of Matt’s band, The National. He is looking for adventure and changes in his life however and sees the tour as an exciting opportunity. He has aspirations that the tour will be a big rock-and-roll party whilst he films all the chaos and revelations as they unfold. He also hopes to expose the lighter funnier side of the band that is often not shown in the media.
Matt on the other hand, to the viewer appears to be at a point where he is overwhelmed with success, and trying to adjust to his sudden fame. Matt being the more mature of the two comes across more solemn, ambitious and guarded in his actions then Tom while on tour. His light-hearted, more relaxed side does make an appearance later in the story, while he is having a break from touring.
The two brothers have spent a lot of time apart since Matt left for college when Tom was nine, so they hope the tour will give them some time to learn and understand each other better. Matt is presented as the golden boy and Tom has always seen Matt as his cool older brother, who is good at everything he tries. As the film unfolds we see Tom struggle with this, feeling excluded and expressing that he feels he is living in his brother’s shadow. He begins to get drunk and complain, as he unsuccessfully tries to balance his ambition with his tour responsibilities before finally being fired by the tour manager. Despite Tom’s failure as a roadie, Matt continues to encourage Tom to finish the film.
The sibling relationship approach to the film humanises it, making it more relatable. It is an aspect that is more applicable to the audience then Matt’s fast growing fame. At one stage, Tom takes the camera into their parents’ home to speak about the differences between the two brothers. Seeing the creative backgrounds of the two, along with the parents working in their own creative environments, was a great insight. Presented with artwork of both boys from the younger years offered an interesting visual comparison of the two. Matt’s piece was more modern, conservative and controlled, while Tom’s artwork was more free, less conservative and humourous using an illustration style that reminded me of Robert Crumb. It is apparent that they are both talented creatively, but in different ways.
The rewards gained through creative persistence against the odds are a key theme in the film. An honest story of a ten-year creative struggle for The National is displayed in the movie through flashbacks to the gigs prior to High Violet’s success. Matt confirms that it wasn’t until they started channeling their fear and emotion as artists into their music that they started to accomplish the musical success they are now confronted with. Matt’s past, along with his encouragement, provides Tom with the motivation to continue and persist with his documentary, which at first seems like a collection of goofy, shaky home videos and footage of serious, focused band members sitting around on laptops. He eventually manages to capture and transform it into the touching, honest, relatable story that it is now. It allows us to see that we can be our own worst enemies or we can keep going till we succeed.
Overall I found the film an enjoyable, light-hearted watch, which was both inspiring and heart-warming. It presents more of a common tale of family and creative pursuit than a story of the band, while opening us to the sibling relationship of the lead singer Matt and his younger brother Tom. The creative persistence of the two is admirable and familiar for many. It is a film that has something to offer most, as it is a humorous tale of music, family and artistic aspirations.
The ‘Mistaken for Strangers’ movie will have a limited release in cinemas, so keep your eyes peeled. Sydneysiders, it’s playing from Feb 13th at Dendy Newtown.
Review by Heather Vousden.