Starring: Tom Berninger, The National
Directed by: Tom Berninger
Norman Mailer once wrote a book called Advertisements for Myself. Has Tom Berninger ever read Mailer? Probably not, but his documentary seems to take that title as its motto. When Mistaken for Strangers begins, Tom is an unemployed misfit, living with his mum and dad, with aspirations to be a horror movie director and a 9-minute opus called Wages of Sin (about a homicidal caveman) to his name. But he is also the brother of Matt Berninger, lead singer of famed indie band The National. When Matt invites Tom to come and be a roadie on the band’s year long world tour, Tom sees it as a chance to prove his filmmaking chops and decides to take along a camcorder.
He quickly turns out to be the annoying younger brother from hell. Instead of doing the job he’s been hired to do, he bothers the band with idiotic questions (do they take wallets on stage? who’s the quickest guitar player?) and sticks his camera in everyone’s face. “Have you checked your job description? Stop taping!” Esteemed German director Werner Herzog is kept waiting when Tom loses a guest list for an after party. For Matt, having Tom there is supposed to be an opportunity for brotherly bonding, but instead he finds himself flipping his lid when Tom misses the tour bus and when he spills cereal on the floor of the bathroom they share (“Were you eating cereal in the dark?”).
A lot of this is irresistibly funny, especially the way Tom can’t help but prick Matt’s pretensions (he points out that Matt always complains about doing publicity stuff but then captures him clearly revelling in a photo shoot at the seaside). Sharp editing helps enormously, imposing a jokey rhythm and always cutting away from a scene before you have a chance to get bored with it – usually with a band member grasping for something to say in response to Tom’s latest comical non sequitur.
But it also feels slightly hammy and not quite real too, even if it is. There’s something oddly actorish about the brothers. Tom seems to be modelling himself on Jack Black in School of Rock, while the lean, buttoned up Matt comes across like Liev Schreiber playing a revered indie rock legend. Nor is it exactly packed full of insights into the band. Yes, Tom’s shambolic interview technique make the guys do double-takes, but they keep their walls up and – this is the upside for them – somehow still manage to come across as good sports who are in on the joke.
The real opinion-divider, however, is the second half, where it becomes all about Tom himself and his struggles to make something worthwhile of the footage he’s shot. Some viewers will buy into this as a moving and brave self-portrait, a study of failure and what it’s like to have an elder brother who’s more successful than you. But you’re just as likely to find it cloying and manipulative, and to be troubled by Tom’s apparent instinct that the surest way to become famous is to diminish his brother with mean-spirited asides, and to wonder what it says about modern values that this act of brazen attention-seeking seems to have been warmly received at film festivals, as if Tom has only done what the audience long to do. At its best, though, when it sticks to being a rockumentary, Mistaken for Strangers is brisk, absurd and colourful, and the music’s great.
The DVD comes with a whole mass of extras. There’s an hour’s worth of bonus scenes, including extensive tour footage and chats with the other band members – worthwhile stuff, but it confirms how much the film benefited from clever editing. There’s also a very lively 49-minute Q&A in front of a live audience, in which Tom and Matt hone their double act and go into detail about how the documentary was made. To judge from what they say here, it would seem that everything we see on screen really was completely real. Last but not least, Tom’s horror short Wages of Sin also gets an airing (no, we’re not looking at the next Sam Raimi).