By Philip Cosores
Mistaken for Strangers, the documentary on Cincinnati-born, Brooklyn-based indie rock breakouts The National, premiered last night to 6,000 fans, friends, and family of the band at Los Angeles’ historic Shrine Auditorium. Though mostly played for laughs, the film — made by and starring frontman Matt Berninger’s brother Tom — works similarly to The National’s music when looked at as a whole, subversively poignant and emotional, but also practically useful in portraying an everyman and his rise to success.
The most affecting moment in the film might be lost on some, as there is no music swell or lighting trick to cue its importance like The National’s concert would later in the evening. It comes 2/3rds in when you meet the parents of Matt and Tom in their native Ohio, and during the mother’s interview, she reveals the film’s true heart. She shows Tom his paintings from his childhood, noticeably more refined than his successful older brother Matt’s —though featuring a strange amount of severed legs— and without irony she says, “What did I always say about you?”
“You are my most talented son,” she finishes, with the scene fading to darkness and a location change.
Up until that point, Tom wasn’t good at much of anything within film, with the obvious caveat being that you are watching a film he made. Until then it has been laugh-out-loud funny throughout and created with a remarkable amount of self-awareness of the band’s dour reputation and their personalities. Though Matt is a great frontman and a smart lyricist, you come to find that his mom is right, and the film quickly becomes about Matt’s belief in Tom being central to Tom fulfilling what was only potential at that point in his life.
Unfulfilled potential is something The National are familiar with. Though one of the more commercially and critically successful indie rock bands of the last decade, it is easy to forget how slowly their ascent took place. Their first two albums failed to make much of an impact at all, and at this point are generally forgotten and written off as non-canonical by most fans. Their first success, 2005’s Alligator, from which three songs were still incorporated into their set on Tuesday night, was overshadowed at the time when they decided to tour with a buzz band named Clap Your Hands Say Yeah!. It’s a tidbit that may seem trivial nearly a decade later, but at the time saw many people just coming for the opener an leaving during The National’s set (present company included).
Success eventually found the five-piece. 2007’s Boxer may have only peaked at No. 68 on the Billboard 200, but it also was named album of the year by Paste Magazine and second place by Stereogum. Their next LP, 2010’s High Violet, debuted at No. 3, a feat matched by last year’s Trouble Will Find Me. But, as the film portrays in a comedic light, none of their financial fortunes have really gone to their head in any noticeable fashion. Even at the premiere of their own movie, complete with a red carpet and scattered celebrities in attendance, the band members could be seen milling about with the fans in attendance, shaking hands and taking photos and generally enjoying the moment as part of a community. Not, well, as strangers.
That familiar concept is why indie rock gets some mainstream success and what separates it from the pop music that is so much more widely appealing and universally relatable. Films about pop starts, even those that take us behind the scenes, are rarely about illuminating or mocking the central figures, but, rather, about maintaining the illusion. It’s all part of the spectacle.
But The National and Mistaken for Strangers give indie rock its own spectacle, one that brings fans closer to the band than previously thought and reveals even more about the groups dynamics and personality.
In the film, at the peak of a National concert, Tom speaks to Matt’s wife in an attempt to gain some insight as to why Matt is practically a different person. “It’s a job,” she concludes, maybe detracting a little from the aura of the rock singer, but giving some practical wisdom that indie rock is comfortable enough to tackle head-on.
On the back of his terrific film, Tom appears to be joining Matt and the band’s two sets of brothers as the rare examples of turning talent into their job, and Tom’s film even provides the recipe for how to make that happen, with a primary ingredient being loved ones that believe in you.