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For Fans of The National, “Mistaken for Strangers” is Highly Recommended

June 10, 2013

By John C.

Mistaken for Strangers PosterFans of the critically acclaimed indie rock group The National will know that the band is made up of two sets of brothers, along with lead singer Matt Berninger, leading some to assume that he was an only child.  But his brother Tom Berninger is the one behind the excellent documentary Mistaken for Strangers.

The film was among my many favourites at Hot Docs last month, and will hopefully be released later this year.  But the documentary plays at the Bloor Cinema as part of NXNE this Friday afternoon, and The National will perform a free show at Yonge & Dundas Square later that night, hence my article and rave review.

When Matt Berninger was going on tour with The National, he invited his younger brother Tom along as a roadie.  Bringing a camera with him to capture all of the action, Tom comes prepared for a wild ride of rock concerts and heavy partying, but ends up realizing just how little he has achieved in comparison to his older brother.  Determined to make a documentary about the band to prove that he can actually see something through to the end, the result is Mistaken for Strangers, a deeply personal film about self discovery and a behind the scenes look at The National.

I keep repeating the fact of just how many great films played at this year’s Hot Docs, and Mistaken for Strangers was the last of the forty that I saw, providing a bittersweet close to the festival.  What I love about the film is the way that we see the roles reversing between these two siblings who couldn’t be me more different, but have more things in common than either one might want to admit.  When they were growing up, Tom was always the more free spirited and inventive artist, and Matt was the one who struggled with depression as he tried to get his band off the ground.  Now Tom is the one depressed, living in the shadow of his brother who gets all of the attention.

Named for a track on The National’s 2007 album Boxer, Mistaken for Strangers works on multiple levels, both as a sometimes hilarious music film and a moving look at the way siblings interact.  As things go on, we also get a meta deconstruction of the documentary format as we watch Tom struggle to piece all of his footage together with an amusing wall of sticky notes, even witnessing the disastrous results of the first test screening.  All of these things might sound like an inaccessible way of describing the film, but this is also a true crowdpleaser in every sense of the word, providing an experience that is downright electrifying when seen with an appreciative audience.

There is plenty of exhilaratingly captured concert footage throughout Mistaken for Strangers, as The National’s songs are memorably used as part of the soundtrack.  The band’s latest album, Trouble Will Find Me, was released on May 21st, and I would already count it among the best of the year.  There is a haunting quality to the collection of thirteen tracks, from the beautifully melancholic writing to the resonant sound of Matt Berninger’s low baritone voice.  Every individual piece of music gives way to something emotionally complex, a true gift of the five piece Brooklyn ensemble who deliver genuine feeling through the multilayered instrumentals.

The stunning second track “Demons” is a deeply moving and emotionally honest study of depression that is haunting and unforgettable in its approach, both in the lyrics and instantly memorable hook.  The twelfth track “Pink Rabbits” is a beautifully written song, with the sweeping instrumentals and brilliant turns of phrase working in perfect unison.  The feelings of sadness and letting go are present throughout the excellent album, providing a compelling and beautifully performed sonic experience that won’t soon be forgotten.  These themes are especially poignant in the wake of Mistaken for Strangers, adding a new perspective to our perception of the lead singer and his brother.

“I just wanna make something good,” Tom says to the camera with emotional desperation, “for him, as well as myself.”  I can safely say that he has absolutely succeeded, and delivers something truly special with Mistaken for Strangers.  Essential viewing for fans of The National and a true crowdpleaser that is pretty much universally relatable, this is a wildly entertaining concert documentary with a very touching story about two brothers reconnecting.  Along with Trouble Will Find Me, Mistaken for Strangers comes highly recommended.  Try to catch this one at NXNE, especially if you missed it at Hot Docs.

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