This funny, charming meta-documentary can be summed up by the line: ‘Being Matt’s brother sucks, because he’s a rockstar, and I’m not’.
Tom Berninger, the tubby, unlucky metal-head brother of The National’s lead singer Matt Berninger, goes on tour with the band, failing as a crew member and capturing the kind of quirky, unusual footage that would seem out of place in a rock-doco — were it not that the uneasy tension and rawness of Mistaken For Strangers suits The National’s aesthetic perfectly. They’re a band that has always been rough around the edges, took a long time to get any traction, and who, by letting their fears and tensions bleed into the music, have grown into a well-loved and highly successful band. The snippets we see of their shows of are full of energy, passion and heart, and Matt is a true frontman: confident, talented, and easily angered.
But this film is not really about The National. It’s about the complicated relationship these two brothers have — Tom, who is nine years younger, and has always been a quitter and lacked confidence; and Matt, who has finally found success and recognition, storming through his rapturous audiences every night yelping “It takes an ocean not to break”.
Matt’s wife Carin Besser came on as co-editor of the film, and helped Tom to weave a classic, heartfelt narrative into a film that could seem on the surface to be unforgivingly self-reflexive. But it works wonderfully: the film is hilarious at times, and full of intimacy. We are also privy to life lessons on confidence that Matt funnels into his brother, trying to get him to finish the film.
One of The National’s biggest themes is putting up a strong front through adversity, and Matt’s cry to Tom to “fake it fake it fake it upwards” and to shut out the negative thoughts to create something worthwhile seem to have hit home, because the film is a triumph and a pleasure.
Sold out Q&A screening, Dendy Quays, Saturday February 8.
Part of Sydney Film Festival June 4-15.