Most rock documentaries are loving hagiographies about the excellence of said band, but Tom Berninger’s Mistaken for Strangers, the closest thing to a documentary on the elegantly disheveled rock band The National, comes at the idea of a rock documentary sideways, and the result is meta: a work about what it’s like to make a documentary on The National.
Berninger is the nine-years-younger brother of National frontman Matt Berninger, and the impetus for the documentary comes when Matt — handsome, successful, the band’s figurehead — invites Tom — a slovenly metalhead with the spirit of a lost Zach Galifianakis character — to be a roadie on the band’s “High Violet” European tour. Intercut with exciting live footage of the band starting out in three-piece suits and ending up a sweaty mess, the audience meets Tom, a goofball still in Ohio with the Berningers, looking for purpose and trying to figure out how his brother made it. With the film hitting theaters and VOD this week, we talked to the brothers Berninger about The National’s trajectory and how to make a rock documentary that isn’t really a rock doc.
Forgive me if I get this wrong, but I think The National, as a band, had a very slow burn of getting to be a big band: at what point did it dawn on you, Tom, that your brother was a giant rock star?
Tom Berninger: I think on the tour it really opened my eyes that a lot of people out there like this band.
Matt Berninger: For some reason…
TB: But it was inspiring — they’re inspiring to this day — because they work really hard. There put a lot of passion in the early records, their core audience slowly grew and grew and grew. It gave me — it should give anybody inspiration. Not that they failed.
MB: We weren’t that good for a while. We kept doing this because we were having fun. We were in the shadows for good reason, because we weren’t as good as Interpol or The Strokes or the Yeah Yeah Yeahs when we started. There was patience and perseverance. And we kept trying and working harder. And that’s one thing [Tom] figured out [by going on tour with The National]: I didn’t just get lucky, it wasn’t overnight — it was a very slow process.
TB: And a painful process. And there was a lot of heartbreak along the way.
MB: And humiliation.
TB: And humiliation. And I have gotten a dose of that as well. And I’m going to get more of that. And I think that’s the main thing I’ve learned from this movie.
What kind of humiliation?
TB: Well, putting myself out there and somebody still not liking you. And I’m pursuing acting, it’s just really hard. What I want to do is really, really difficult to do. And I did it a little bit with this one, and I’m hoping I can continue, but it is a really, really hard, really discouraging road sometimes.
One thing I was struck by in your movie how it explored brotherhood through the age difference between you two [nine years]. It’s a big deal, since you’re in different stages of your life. You’re not brothers in the same house dealing with the same things at the same time, and that creates a sort of difference and distance.
TB: With nine years difference, Matt was never an older brother that would beat me up or give me shit. He would take me to see movies and I would just be taken along or taken to concerts, indie rock concerts, and he would stand next to me, and we would get in front of the stage and the band would throw the guitar picks down at me, and of course he would take them from me, steal ’em. And also I remember always girls would come over to you because you brought your younger brother along.
MB: I was nine when he was born, and then when I went off to college — when I was 18 — he was still a little kid. But he looked up to me and always saw me as this big, successful thing, and I think it took a long time for him to realize that I had as many failures and fears and anxieties as he did. In a strange way, when he came on tour to be a roadie, spending time together, we had to recalibrate our understanding of each other, because we were now both adults, and for a while we were going into these old roles of older brother/little brother and it wasn’t working.
I would think a National documentary was bound to happen at some point. It’s nice that it got to be this; it’s a meta look at making a movie.
MB: We didn’t have any idea he was actually going to be making a movie. We thought we were going to be making a little short, maybe a video, maybe some silly little thing he put on the Internet — and you did put some of your little silly things on the Internet — but when you started turning it into a feature, I think there was a lot of anxiety about, “What does Tom have?” We knew what he had. So there was a threat that this band documentary would end up for our shelf. We’d think, “Oh, that’s cool, Tom, but you can’t really release that.” You went out on a limb that could’ve never worked.
TB: I myself am so much in my movie, and they realized that there was something going on here, that it wasn’t a rock doc or a typical band documentary, that it would be soul searching. They’d think, “If Tom’s going to be saying all this stuff about himself, I’m okay with them seeing me naked in the shower.” They were willing to go with me on some sort of crazy ride.
Tom Berninger, photo by Pamela Fillion
A lot of rock documentaries are this sort of sepia-toned, Ken Burns-effect-abusing recollections of how great it was to have a band at some point. This is very in the moment and alive in comparison, and Tom, you end up looking like a madman.
MB: My favorite music documentaries aren’t really about the band anyway. Gimme Shelter is about something else, and I’m Trying to Break Your Heart is about something else. On the movie, my wife and Tom — they were editing it together — were like, “I think the movie should be more about Tom.” That’s when I really got excited about it — I thought that might be good! — and so I stayed out of it and let him run with that, and it was a smart way to go. You could learn more about a band that way, from seeing it from the side.
TB: When I would interview all the band members, I would begin asking them your typical documentary questions, but then there was another moment where I kind of wanted to talk about my brother, in the way that I had some questions and I wanted to figure out why he was successful and why I wasn’t. And I wasn’t jealous, I was just curious. And I felt that was the best stuff. The band, they’re kind of my psychologists, just giving me good advice. That was a really interesting way of getting to know each band member.
E: Because they also have a brotherly relationship, as well. Bands are family units of their own. What would you say you learned about brotherhood while making the movie?
TB: I will always be an annoying little brother, no matter what, when I turn 50 and he’s 60.
MB: You’re not that annoying. I’m trying to figure out how to not repeat these old patterns and to see each other as very different peers.
MB: That might be hard to do, especially while he’s still living in my garage.
TB: Hopefully when I’m 50 I’ll be out of his garage.