When amateur filmmaker Tom Berninger’s rock-star brother Matt, frontman for Brooklyn quintet the National, invited him to be a roadie on his band’s biggest tour, Tom had never even been on a tour bus. His lack of experience did not serve him well during his initiation into the business, but a funny thing happened on the way to the concert hall: Tom turned defeat into a documentary that’s insightful, sweet and often hilarious.
In “Mistaken for Strangers,” a fresh revamp of the music-doc template, the National’s angsty songs are mere backdrop to a story whose true subjects are sibling love and rivalry and the thorny matter of creative success — here explored through the tension between achievement and striving, or, as one observer puts it, alpha male versus underdog.
Nominal underdog Tom was 30, living with the folks in Cincinnati and making zero-budget gore shorts when singer-songwriter Matt extended his offer, an opportunity that he hoped would sharpen his little bro’s sense of purpose. Arriving bright-eyed, eager to party and equipped with a camera, Tom got busy shooting behind the scenes of the European trek. His knack for bad timing and clueless questions is the stuff of Spinal Tap-esque comedy. Yet something primal emerges from the inanity, as Tom turns interviews with band members into therapy sessions about his relationship with his brother.
For all their obvious differences, the bond between affable Tom and laser-intense Matt reveals itself in ways both subtle and profound. Matt quietly offers some of the wisest, most compassionate advice one artist can give another. And Tom may not fulfill all his job requirements, but the closing sequence is evidence of hands-on support, his face beaming with heart-bursting pride.
“Mistaken for Strangers”
MPAA rating: None
Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes.
Playing: At Arena Cinema, Hollywood. Also on VOD.
PHOTOS AND MORE