The rockstar and the slacker: how touring with the National created brothers-in-arms

When the National’s frontman, Matt Berninger, asked his brother Tom to tour with the band, Tom saw it as an opportunity to make a movie about all the “crazy stuff” they got up to. But his film, Mistaken for Strangers, says more about brotherhood than hedonism

Matt (left) and Tom Berninger: despite the nine-year age gap, the brothers were close growing up and Tom credits his older brother for his love of movies

Matt (left) and Tom Berninger: despite the nine-year age gap, the brothers were close growing up and Tom credits his older brother for his love of movies


Tom Berninger is in Helsinki to screen his film Mistaken for Strangers, a documentary about all the mistakes he made while trying to make a documentary about indie rock band the National. It focuses on his own misadventures on tour and his relationship with his older brother, National frontman Matt Berninger.

“It’s about siblings,” says Berninger, who describes the documentary as “a family film, a rated-R family film, with a naked drummer in it”.

A shaggy-haired, 30-year-old kid with a love for heavy metal and a habit of quitting everything he starts, Berninger was still living at home in Cincinnati, making his own low-budget action and horror films, when Matt invited him to join the band’s High Violet tour as an assistant to their tour manager. Berninger, who rarely sees his brother, gladly accepted. He brought a camera along to shoot a sort-of documentary about the band.

To his dismay, there was little drama with the Brooklyn-based five-piece – no drug addictions, gambling problems, break-ups or break-downs – and the “crazy stuff” he expected to document while on tour with a bunch of international rock stars just wasn’t happening.

Preoccupied with trying to make a movie, Berninger neglects his actual job responsibilities and after a slew of comical blunders as both roadie and filmmaker, he ends up fired. It wasn’t until he began the editing process while living with Matt and his wife Carin Besser in their Brooklyn home – in their daughter’s playroom to be exact – that he finds his story and finally finishes what he started.

Atypical rockumentary
“I could not make a typical rock documentary on the National and I didn’t want to,” says Berninger. “I’m not a big indie rock fan, so there’s better people to do that . . . I was more interested in what they [the other members of the band] think of my brother.”

In the film, Matt is the sharply dressed, focused and successful adult, while Tom is the sloppier, podgier, more laidback, slacker kid who never really grew up.

Despite the nine-year age gap, the brothers were close growing up, and Berninger credits his older brother for his love of movies. The family home didn’t have cable TV, so Matt brought home a VCR.

“He was the guy that got me into movies,” says Berninger, who speaks fondly of nights they spent as kids sitting in their driveway and talking about movies like Predator and Alien.

“I watched all the movies that he watched . . . if it was on a Friday night that he watched these action movies that I couldn’t watch, I would watch them Saturday mornings when everybody was asleep. I cut my teeth on rated-R action movies and horror movies.”

As adults, Berninger now tries to figure out how he fits into his brother’s life. Matt is a rock star and Tom is, well, not. It’s the ultimate story about the kid who just can’t quite live up to his older brother.

“I knew [the film] was going to be through the eyes of Matt’s younger brother, but not until the editing room did we, did I, know how much of me was going to be in the movie and I certainly didn’t know that it was going to be kind of a siblings movie,” says Berninger, who explains he had “a lot of help” with his 200 plus hours of footage from Besser who acted as co-editor.

“It was in the editing process and seeing all these mistakes I made and all these horrible decisions I made while making this movie that became the movie itself.”

When I ask how Matt reacted to the direction the film took Berninger explains: “He definitely knew where it was headed towards the end. He has just been totally 100 per cent on board with this thing, and so have the rest of the guys.”

Matt and the “rest of the guys” are certainly good sports. Tom’s interviews are disorganised and the questions are often absurd, for example: “How famous do you think you are?”; “Where do you see the National in, like, 50 years?”; “Do you carry wallets on stage with you?” After waiting for a second to make sure he’s serious, they usually attempt an answer.

They also play along when Berninger gives them hilarious directions for what are meant to be introductory shots. In one scene, he fires off commands to guitarist Aaron Dessner in quick succession: “Can you look up? Look away. Look intense into the camera. Look away. Okay now act like you just got a really good idea.”

Mistaken for Strangers opened Tribeca Film Festival earlier this year and Tom has been busy doing the festival circuit and promoting the film ever since. “For the most part, it’s been really well received,” he says, explaining that negative reactions are usually from diehard National fans who are expecting an in-depth rockumentary from a guy with incredible access.

“I think this movie works best if nobody has any expectations,” says Berninger in all seriousness.

The reactions he’s been most surprised and moved by are the tearful ones from people who see a bit of Tom and Matt in their own kids or siblings.

“People say that they’re going to call their brothers or sisters after this and they just feel like they need to talk to their siblings after my movie and that just means a lot, I mean it touches me,” says Berninger.

When not travelling with the film, Berninger is now living with his brother and his family in LA and has a few potential projects in the works. “This movie has kind of opened a few doors for me,” he says, adding that they’re “very, very small” doors.

“People have been responding very kindly to my presence on screen . . . and I’m thinking about me being in front of the camera a little bit more.”

If anything, the completed project has given Berninger the confidence and the exposure to do more.

“I think what I learned was [that] I’m a good filmmaker, I make good choices, I guess I might have a unique vision,” he says. “I hate saying this because I feel like I’m talking about myself, but I learned that I’m pretty good in front of the camera and I never knew that before . . . And the fact that people don’t hate me at the end of the movie, that means a lot to me.”

Mistaken for Strangers is premiering in Dublin at the OneTwoOneTwo music documentary festival at the Light House until October 6th

OneTwoOneTwo festival – three to see
1. Mistaken for Strangers is a funny and heart-warming underdog story about siblings and success told by National frontman Matt Berninger’s younger brother Tom. While on tour with the band in 2010, Tom documented his own mishaps as a very terrible roadie, his relationship with his far more successful brother and his struggle to make a movie about the band. The results are hilarious.

2. In February 2012, members of the Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot were arrested after trying to stage a performance at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour as a protest against Putin and his ties to the Orthodox Church. Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer follows their controversial criminal trial.

3. REM, the Flaming Lips, Teenage Fanclub, Pete Yorn, the Replacements . . . Memphis rock band Big Star is well known for having a big influence on some very big acts. After failing to hit upon commercial success, the band achieved massive critical acclaim and cult status. Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me tells their story from the start.

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