Brothers in arms make for a fascinating movie

by Gazette Reporter

THE ROCK documentary has a long and memorable tradition of giving an insight into the invisible existence of musicians on the road, but few have taken such an unconventional approach to the form as the new film about indie rock heroes, The National.
Mistaken For Strangers is filmed verite style by Tom Berninger, younger brother of the band’s lead singer, Matt, as he joins the band on the road as The National embark on the tour in support of High Violet, the record that took them from indie rock’s best kept secret to an overground success story which now sees them play to huge audiences around the world (witness their show at the Sydney Opera House recently http://ow.ly/vJV0k).
The film has a prescient title, in that from the outset, it appears that the Berninger siblings could not be more different. However, as the film progresses, there is a warmth and a deep affection clear between the brothers that is the beating heart of the film throughout.
Though the gig for Tom is originally as a road crew member and assistant tour manager, a role he seems utterly unsuited for, he is also filming scenes and performances for a documentary he wants to create from the experience of being close to the flame of his brother’s fame. That is, until he screws up once too often, and is fired from the crew.
After Matt and his wife reach out to him, Tom picks up the threads of disparate material recorded through the tour across the US and Europe (you can spot the Olympia at one stage, and remember the iridescent performance they put on on a brutally cold December day a few years ago), and ultimately weaves together something more about him than it is about the band, though they provide the players on the stage as the main character, Tom, struts and frets about his place in the world and how he works to stake, understand and express his talent.
Although at times you get the sensation that there is a simmering tension only moments away from exploding into camera and backstage-breaking violence, there are moments when both Tom and Matt, and their parents, express what each means to the other, and those scenes can be heartbreakingly touching.
This is far from a rock movie in the sense that, although there are National songs throughout the film, the only complete performance comes right at the end, an intense and passionate Terrible Love that sees Matt go on one of his trademark venue walkabouts, all the way out through the crowd and into the empty lobby, while Tom, acting as security for the lead singer, makes sure he can still deliver his vocal and traverse his way to and from the stage unhindered. It’s a scene that makes you realise, like the story told throughout the film, that they may be diametrically opposite as people but they unquestionably have each other’s backs.
Less a portrait of life on the road than a study of fulfilled and unfulfilled potential, it’s an uncomfortable watch at times, but one thing that shines through is Tom’s creative talent and that this film was finished at all is an achievement for him, and you can’t fail but wish him the best in the future.
The National come to Dublin on July 18 and 19 when they play the Iveagh Gardens in what is certain to be one of the gigs of the summer. Tickets are €42 and are available from Ticketmaster.

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