I first learned how to strum guitar strings and press upon piano keys in high school. By college, I understood how to apply pressure in all the correct places. I was taught how to filter melodies through mixing desks and computer screens, turning music into teenage trinkets trapped upon compact disks crudely scrawled with marker pen and burned with borrowed verse. In university, I clung to a wooden body and nickel-wound strings (a satisfying mix of heavy and light gauge) to get me through the homesick hours.
I left my home, I lived alone, I wanted to change my name. I clumsily hashed out compositions about the beautiful girls who gave me black dreams inside a second floor studio apartment, a temporary residence that I now remember with much fondness through a revisionist haze. I recall how the ramshackle noise I manufactured would float through the room’s diminutive dimensions before settling in its sulky, sunless corners. Music’s perpetual force pulled me through a period of tumultuous young adulthood, allowing me to express myself in ways I never thought possible.
After years of toiling away beneath the shaky lighting rigs of empty, beer-soaked bars—peddling musical wares alongside his melodic band of brothers (The National’s five man line-up includes two sets of siblings)—Matt Berninger’s eloquent, sucker-punch lyricism paid off. The Ohio native escaped New York City’s labyrinth of flickering light and fleeting adulation for the upper echelons of indie-rock immortality, garnering widespread critical acclaim and selling out venues around the world along the way. A notable omission from this journey? Matt’s actual younger brother, Tom.
While still living at home in Cincinnati with his and Matt’s parents, Tom Berninger watched his big brother sweet-talk his way into the hearts and record-collections of America. After an impromptu invite landed the self-appointed runt of the litter a spot as a roadie on The National’s High Violet tour, Tom’s fondness for filmmaking and troublemaking was rekindled and documented through the lens of his video camera. This bittersweet collage of footage would result in Mistaken for Strangers: a startlingly candid, irreverently funny, and deeply redemptive tale of two brothers reconnecting in the midst of an indie-rock miasma of stardom and self-loathing.
Mistaken for Strangers is a music documentary with a difference—a picture without the typical pomp and circumstance evident when famed directors fetishize equally famed musicians. The endearing amateurishness of Tom’s muddled footage strips away at the veneer that has coated indie rock ‘n’ roll with a shimmering, self-loathing mystique once impenetrable to mere mortals. Mistaken for Strangers is a story told by a man sitting in the shade of his brother’s fame, a man who lost himself and never quite found his way back onto the path, a man who illustrates that our greatest obstacle in life is often ourselves.
Music has always been an irreplaceable part of my life. Specific records dot my formative years like highway markers. Oasis’ Definitely Maybe soundtracked rain-soaked mornings spent on the schoolyard; if we endured these miserable days beneath gunmetal grey skies we might just “Live Forever.” The soulful storytelling of Ryan Adams’ Cold Roses signalled the death throes of summer’s sticky malaise, while the potent bleakness of Love is Hell’s chiming gloom marked autumn’s vibrant collapse into the black hollow of winter. The National’s High Violet warned of the perils of whiskey cocktails, dangerous women and prescription medication—an intoxicating education of cautionary tales. The melancholic fantasy and eloquent dejection of Matt Berninger’s meditative vocals provided an escape from my own fears and regrets as I fostered those of a man who had already lived through and immortalised them. I listened to High Violet’s eleven songs on repeat, often falling asleep to the enigmatic verses of “Lemonworld”:
This pricey stuff makes me dizzy
I guess I’ve always been a delicate man
Takes me a day to remember a day
I didn’t mean to let it get so far out of hand
I was a comfortable kid but I don’t think about it much anymore
Lay me on the table, put flowers in my mouth
And we can say that we invented a summer loving torture party
The album’s waves of guitar reverb flattened out and sat upon my frame like a blanket. Sharp blasts of brass sent orchestral shivers down my resting bones. Drums pounded like exclamation marks, intricately stressing the transition from verse to chorus to coda. Hushed vocals swelled in the heat before exploding into screams.
In High Fidelity, John Cusack arranges his vast black sea of vinyl records not alphabetically or chronologically, but autobiographically—forcing himself to relive the moments that went hand-in-hand in with the track he seeks:
“…And if I want to find the song “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac I have to remember that I bought it for someone in the fall of 1983 pile, but didn’t give it to them for personal reasons.”
The music is a tool, a spiritual regression, a sadomasochistic ritual, a means of remembering—or rather, never forgetting. Throughout Mistaken for Strangers , The National’s back catalogue doesn’t take centre stage, but instead forms background noise. Its presence scores a series of sombre set-pieces—ranging from the brothers’ optimistic reunion inside a Paris hotel room to their many moments of frustration on the road—while also acting as a subtle reminder of the vast distance which has slowly formed, and continues to grow, between the two men.
“I feel like I’m on the outside of the world looking in. And even though there was a huge age difference growing up it was never like that… I think he never really understood me.” – Tom Berninger
Very few bands are capable of creating music as richly evocative and cinematic as The National; every verse could provide the narrative seed of a screenplay. However, Mistaken for Strangers deals in monotony; petty exchanges; and the struggles of an individual eternally connected, yet forever sequestered upon the peripheries of the cool, successful inner-circle The National and their music are secondary here to the director and his moving tale, secondary to a classical fable of two brothers, which presents the film with perhaps its greatest narrative obstacle: a contemporary re-telling of the parable of the prodigal son, transposed onto a bona fide rock star and a certified goofball. This time, the older brother left home and didn’t fuck everything up.
“It was in the editing room when my brother’s wife… She really convinced me that this is the way that the movie should go… about my struggles somewhat in the shadow of my brother.” – Tom Berninger
Mistaken for Strangers isn’t about The National’s long, hard road to success or the eccentricities of their music. It doesn’t dwell upon their fandom or the experience to be had at one of their concerts. The film is uniquely insular and revealing to an almost embarrassing degree. While Matt exorcises his demons on-stage through a microphone, Tom’s candid interviews with the other members of the band—particularly guitarists, Aaron and Bryce Dessner—become a source of therapy. He intends to give the softly-spoken siblings a solitary spotlight for once, but ultimately steamrolls them, poking, prying, and urging the bemused pair to share anecdotes that will publicly shame Matt and confirm that he’s just not that great of a guy.
Tom is like a fly on the wall who continually finds himself stuck in the ointment, embarrassing his older brother and failing to fulfill his own actual job description. He sees himself as a contemporary D.A. Pennebaker (despite probably not knowing, or giving a shit, who Pennebaker actually is). In reality, we witness him awkwardly fumble across this alien, indie rock landscape over which his sharply suited brother reigns: Matt, peering over his thick, black Ray-Bans at the unruly subjects below like a sharply-tailored overlord.
Tom assumes that all the necessary pieces of making a documentary will magically fall into place while he relaxes in a corner with St. Vincent and pounds a beer, much to the chagrin of his older brother and the bemusement of the rest of the band. He is left to source bottles of water and towels for the band while constantly questioning why his experience on the road is so “coffee house” and not more “metal”—why isn’t everyone having more fun? As the brothers’ tentative reunion begins to unravel, so does a concert of comedic moments. Tom loses a venue’s VIP list, stranding Werner Herzog and the cast of Lost outside in the cold for forty-five minutes; he shouts abuse at what he believes to be Moby’s house from an infinity pool; and, finally, he misses the band bus after getting loaded in a bar—a mistake which ultimately results in the termination of Tom’s role as roadie, though not the brothers’ journey together.
Following university, I got lost in dead-end jobs inside department stores and building yards. Honestly, I still am. I’ve watched seasons change through beat-up automatic doors that refuse to meet in the middle and flattened my fingertips through repeatedly tapping at a touch-screen till. I stopped listening to all those influential albums. Why would I want to live forever when every day was exactly the same? I packed away the guitar—now fixed with an ugly crack produced by a fist and fit of frustration—and pressed mute. Just as Tom had rested in the shadow of his older brother, I couldn’t escape the memory of my former self.
I grew up as an only child. The bond between brothers and sisters is a foreign concept to me. The fierce competition of sibling rivalries will always evade me, and yet I can relate to both Matt and Tom throughout Mistaken for Strangers. Sometimes the distance isn’t difficult, the self-inflicted loneliness welcomed. Whether it’s life on the road or life three hundred miles away from home, the separation is easy; it’s facing what you left behind that’s the hardest part—whether that’s a baby brother or a small town in the North West of England.
I interviewed the Berninger brothers for the UK release of Mistaken for Strangers. Many of the quotes featured in this piece are taken from that conversation. One thing was dramatically clear throughout; they were closer than ever before. Their journey together had sucked out the venom of Tom’s jealousy and eased Matt’s dismay at his brother’s slacker lifestyle. They shared laughs and made fun of one another with grace and ease and without prejudice. There was still distance, but it was perhaps lesser than at any other point in their lives. They had felt their way through one another’s fame and frustration. The music that had ultimately forced them apart was now drawing them together.
“He was often his own worst enemy and gave up on things, and that’s a big theme in the movie. It’s about persistence and not quitting, so in a weird way, Tom’s biggest challenge was just to finish the thing. To me it didn’t matter if it was good or not, I just really wanted Tom to see it through, and that was the biggest breakthrough for him, the understanding that things are ultimately bad until they get good and you have to just stay with it.” – Matt Berninger
However powerful its individual components may be, music’s greatest quality isn’t just hearing a stirring lyric or the cascade of a plectrum upon strings. Music is about motion. Music dismantled the last fragments of the Berningers’ adolescent bond before piecing them back together not as siblings, but as peers, one a musician and the other a director.
Whether things are bad or good, I don’t stop listening anymore.
Brody Rossiter is a Falmouth University Film graduate and freelance journalist. He is a features writer for the independent cinema magazine, ONSCREEN, and has contributed to various print and online publications.