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
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.
“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.”