I have a very extensive catalogue of old articles that I think are worth revisiting. Here’s one of them. (This article originally appeared in The Georgia Straight.)
Matt Berninger is an atypical rock star: a middle-aged dad with a meditative croon and a penchant for elliptical lyrics. Nonetheless, his band, the National, has a track record of top-10 albums, Grammy nominations, and (perhaps most important of all) rave reviews from Pitchfork.
Tom Berninger, Matt’s younger brother, is not a star of any kind, although his directorial debut, Mistaken for Strangers, is threatening to make him one, having garnered its share of glowing critical notices from the likes of Entertainment Weekly and, yes, even Pitchfork. Opening on Saturday (April 12), Mistaken for Strangers is about Tom’s stint working as a roadie for his brother’s band on its 2010-11 tour. Well, working might not be exactly the right word. Much of the film’s drama (and humour) is derived from Tom’s run-ins with tour manager Brandon Reid.
Tom lasted eight-and-a-half months on the road before the inevitable firing, long enough for him to capture his brother and the rest of the National at their best (and occasionally their worst) with the handheld camera he just happened to have with him. At its heart, though, Mistaken for Strangers is about the relationship between two brothers. There’s a sense that the pudgy man-child lives in a completely different world than golden boy Matt. In a conference call with the Straight, Tom says the film’s focus only became clear when he started to edit the footage with Matt’s wife, Carin Besser.
“Very slowly we kept adding more of me and less of the National. And we actually did have test screenings to make sure that, like, ‘Is this the right move? Are we gonna piss anybody off?’ And for the most part, people said, ‘No, this is Tom’s story. This is the good stuff,’ ” he says, noting that things were crystallized in a scene in which he’s “wasted on the bus”.
“I thought it would be cool to have me drinking all the band’s beer on the bus while they all slept in hotels,” he says. “I partied by myself.…I didn’t know if it was ever going to be seen, but I thought it would be funny. When I saw it later in the editing room, with Carin, it wasn’t very funny. It was kind of sad. And we were like, ‘Ooh, that’s even better.’ ”
While Tom admits that the film plays up the bumbling-slacker angle, one suspects there’s more to the man than what we see on the screen. We get a hint of this when the boys’ mother describes Tom as “the most talented” of the two. Joining his brother on the phone from his home in Los Angeles, Matt readily agrees.
“Tom swims through the world with a very unique stroke,” the singer tells the Straight. “He’s got a unique taste and a very unique vision and a very unique way that he interacts with the world. And I think that’s what she means when she says he was always the most talented—meaning he had this weirdness about him that was very special. And the truth is, I think the whole family always thought she was kind of right about that. Tom has a weird light inside him that he often doesn’t recognize; some strange green light does glow from within my brother that everyone else can see but sometimes he doesn’t.”
Matt may be the rock star of the Berninger clan, but it’s Tom’s “weird light” that makes Mistaken for Strangers sing.