NEW YORK -- “He’s not a villain,” Matt Berninger said of his brother Tom. “He’s the nicest guy in the world.”
The 42-year-old front man of the band the National was standing on stage between songs at the New York’s Highline Ballroom, gesturing to his brother about 20 feet away. Tom raised his hands, let out a howl, then accepted a noogie of appreciation from a friend nearby.
Those who had watched the Berningers on screen in the documentary “Mistaken for Strangers,” the opening-night film of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, wouldn’t have thought Tom was a villain. A few other adjectives might have come to mind: bumbling, underachieving, clueless.
In “Mistaken for Strangers” -- whose opening-night screening was followed by a National gig at this downtown venue -- Tom, Matt’s younger brother by nearly a decade, is invited by his punctilious sibling to become a roadie on their yearlong global tour. As he prepares to leave his Cincinnati home, the nerd-slacker also decides he’ll shoot a movie about the band while on tour with it, becoming not just a roadie but a director.
He isn’t exactly up for either job. As he trails along with the National, Tom finds himself tripping over his own goofball questions, generally interrupts the band’s routine and makes himself obtrusive and seems incapable of the most basic tasks. At one point he loses the guest list and fails to give it to a venue right before a show is about to start. “So they’ve just been waiting out there,” Matt asks his brother, whose patience with him often runs thin. When he presses Tom on who was on the list, the slacker replies, “I don’t know. Werner Herzog? The cast of ‘Lost’?” He’s the Keystone Kop of roadies.
He also doesn’t seem to be much of a documentarian. Many of the takes feature Tom struggling to get out a question, usually insipid, and calling attention to the camera with Matt and his bandmates in a way that heightens their self-consciousness about being filmed. What’s the opposite of a fly-on-the-wall documentary? A swarming-pack-of-mosquitoes documentary? Whatever it is, this is it.
As a result, “Mistaken for Strangers” actually tells you very little about the National, a brooding indie band that has found unlikely mainstream success.
But if it’s far from a conventional music documentary, the film, which seems bound for some kind of TV airing, does have plenty to say about both sibling dynamics and the ineffable nature of success. Tom, eternally jovial but clearly jealous, watches his Type A brother bask in rock stardom and wonders why his own life path has taken a less fortunate turn. (It may not be a matter of talent as much as work ethic; as their mother says in an interview, even as a boy, Tom was never able to see something through to the end.)
By the film’s conclusion, Matt, though sometimes smarmy and aloof, has shown himself to be a thoughtful and caring sibling. He speaks openly to his brother as he tells him to “lean” toward the things he likes about himself and offers a perhaps revealing bit of wisdom when he suggests that Tom, like many of us, “fake [his] way upwards.” By then, the film has morphed into a family drama more than anything else.
At the Highline performance, I asked Tom whether he intended from the start to make a film about sibling dynamics and its fraught-but-still-heartwarming ways.
“No,” he said, laughing. “No, no, no,” then laughed more. Still, this piece of anti-documentary may have gotten there anyway. Across the club from Tom at that moment, Matt Berninger was greeting well-wishers, telling them that in the theater he’d found himself crying by the end of the movie.
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