Film review: THE NATIONAL: MISTAKEN FOR STRANGERS, from Built For Speed

The National: Mistaken For Strangers appears at first to be a documentary about indie rock darlings The National as they embark on a world tour in the wake of their breakthrough album High Violet in 2010. It soon becomes apparent that this is a very different type of documentary.  Prior to the tour, dapper lead singer Matt Berninger makes the fateful decision to have his layabout, horror movie and heavy metal-loving brother Tom tag along as a roadie.  Tom, however, is under the impression that he has been appointed the band’s official videographer and constantly harasses the band and support staff with his camera; everything we see on the screen was apparently filmed by Tom.  The film soon transforms from a documentary about the tour and the band’s recent successes into a story about Tom’s relationship with his brother Matt and Tom’s floundering attempts to emerge from his brother’s shadow and overcome a life of failure.

Or is it? The film is certainly meant to promote the band and act as a time capsule of what may be a career peak but there’s also a gnawing suspicion that this film is a practical joke in the form of a Spinal Tap-style mockumentary. The band are real and the tour is real but whether the events that befall Tom, including his clashes with Matt, stuff-ups as a roadie and his antagonising of tour manager Brandon Reid are real or manufactured, is uncertain.  Chubby, unkempt, immature, desperate for attention and oblivious to the rules of acceptable behaviour, Tom just seems like too much of a stereotypical bumbling slob to be real; he could easily be a Jack Black or Zach Galafianakas character.  True or not, the film still provides plenty of amusement with Tom’s wide-eyed Candide-like journey through life as he completely fails to recognise the destructive impact he has on those around him and just about derails the tour with his bumbling incompetence.

The film has the added intrigue of being self-reflexive as Tom constantly talks about the difficulties of making the film we are watching.  As such, it provides some thoughtful and occasionally painful insights into the stresses of the film-making process.  There are also brief insights into the rigours of touring, the pressures of making records and the strangeness of sudden celebrity for the band and particularly Matt Berninger as he’s courted by other famous faces including Emily Blunt but aside from snippets of live performance, we learn little about the band’s music.

Audiences expecting a straightforward documentary and a comprehensive expose of the band will probably find this film mystifying and infuriatingly self-indulgent.  Those familiar with the band who want to see them have some fun with their somewhat dour and reverent image and those who enjoy guerrilla filmmaking will find a lot to enjoy in this odd ramshackle movie.

Nick’s rating: ***

Genre: Documentary/ comedy.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Tom Berninger.

Release date: 6th Feb 2014.

Running time: 75 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast. 

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