Saturday 28 June 2014

O brother: "Mistaken for Strangers"

All bands need to mix it up every once in a while, and it was at the point of their international breakthrough - with the 2010 album "High Violet" - that indie rockers The National elected to throw a spanner in their own works. That spanner was singer Matt Berninger's younger brother Tom, hired for the subsequent tour as both a roadie and an on-the-road video diarist. The two siblings could, indeed, be Mistaken for Strangers, as the resulting documentary's title has it: where the urbane, debonair Matt is the very model of a performer who finally made it in his late thirties, now able to articulate to millions something of the life he's lived and the regrets he's accrued, the portly, scruffy Tom - liberated from the basement of his parents' Cincinnati home, where he curates his low-budget horror oeuvre - is the kind of longhair who traditionally lurks behind the drumkit in metal acts, a goofy manboy who's convinced that touring ain't nothing but a good time. Conflict can only ever ensue.

So it is that while Matt wanders the backstage area, sucking on a thoughtful tooth, Tom continually contrives to get himself in the way: knocking back the complimentary booze, he shakes his camera in everybody's face and asks stoopid questions, failing even to meet the roadie's rudimentary job description of "showing up on time" and "being hefty enough to shift an amp from here to there". The contrast between the two Berningers is heightened to an extent we might become somewhat sceptical, if not outright suspicious of what it is we're being shown: if the band's management was entirely serious about hiring this debatably reliable character as a roadie, then surely equipping him with a camera and the additional task of official documentarist wasn't the shrewdest of ideas. And I think you'd have to be an especially credulous fan to believe Tom and Matt - a veteran, by this point, of numerous Rolling Stone and New York Times photoshoots - weren't playing up their differences in some way: this is a would-be director and a Grammy-nominated performer we're dealing with, after all.

If you're coming to Mistaken for Strangers for the music, it should be noted we barely hear a song in its entirety, and there are obvious aesthetic limitations to Tom's haphazard, wobblycam approach. As the film progresses, however, it becomes apparent that the camera in this instance is but a means to an end for Tom: the tool that might just allow him to get closer to his brother, and bridge the divide between Matt's success and his own apparent failure. The Berningers are substantially happier around cameras than those exotic wallflowers Arcade Fire, to draw one musical comparison, and the film's first half sends back some eyecatching, occasionally mindboggling snapshots of the unrealities (and, perhaps, the iniquities) of latter-day fame: Tom's footage inadvertently suggests the strangeness of seeing someone you shared a bedroom with growing up suddenly encountering Werner Herzog, or playing a Presidential address. (To quote one of The National's art-rock forefathers, Talking Heads' David Byrne: "How did I get here?" Pondering that, you might get wobbly, too.)

After Tom is relieved of his duties mid-tour and sent home, tail firmly between his legs, we sense the two brothers wrestling for control of the film - or perhaps one offering the other a helping hand. Media darling Matt dispatches his wife, sometime New Yorker editor Carin Besser, to help cut the raw material, determining to knock it into the best possible record of his band's sudden (if belated) success; Tom retreats in tears to his bedroom, uncertain - unlike his sibling - of how to convert his personal and professional setbacks into a Hot 100 charttopper or a Sundance prizewinner, and we come to feel how a boy like him could probably do with even a little of the adulation and affirmation bestowed upon his brother every night. It's ended up a collaboration of sorts, and one that might do both brothers some good, rescuing Tom from the basement even as it cements Matt's rise to prominence; though some of its situations might be questionable, the dynamic between the two rings increasingly true - and such unvarnished emotional authenticity ensures Mistaken for Strangers is unlikely to hinder The National's growing reputation as the thinking person's depressives.

Mistaken for Strangers is now showing in selected cinemas; further information can be found here.

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