Mistaken for Strangers, a documentary created by Tom Berninger, younger brother of The National’s frontman, Matt Berninger, is unlike any “rock doc” you’ve ever seen. It’s not a story of conflict amongst band members or the long journey to success. It’s not a segment of VH1’s “Behind The Music,” or special feature footage included on a live performance DVD.
It’s a documentary about two brothers; one who became one of the most well known voices of indie rock, and one who did not.
After being asked to join the band as a roadie on its High Violet tour, Tom decides to film a documentary about The National on tour. The end result the audience sees is so much more than that, delving deep into Tom’s insecurities and depression in the face of his brother’s success. If you haven’t had the chance to see it, I highly recommend it—it’s a $15 download, but it’s totally worth it. And check out this Pitchfork review too.
I watched Mistaken for Strangers four times in the past 60 hours knowing I would be writing about it later on. My first instinct was to talk about how unique it was, breaking the mold set by rock docs previously, but as more reviews popped up, the more I realized I had to think of something knew.
And then I thought about the college I attend.
Almost all who attend Columbia College Chicago are chasing a dream, whether in the spotlight, in the studio or behind the scenes. Often our dreams are far fetched, but we have the luxury of entering an environment where success is achievable. We are dreamers, and that’s okay.
We start our academic careers hoping to become Matt, but there will always be those of us who become Tom. Our dreams change, interests fade and sometimes it feels like it’s just not meant to be. As great as Columbia can be for those who find success, there will be disappointment and heartbreak for some of us. We will compare ourselves to the Matt’s of the world and wonder why it couldn’t be us.
One of the many reasons I loved this film was due to the way members of The National were portrayed: calm, collected, mostly quiet and deeply ingrained in their music. Writing, producing and performing music was their job, and it was a job done well. Matt, along with the rest of the band—Aaron, Brian, Bryce and Scott—defied Tom’s expectations of what it meant to be on tour with a gang of rock stars. In a way, they shattered the illusion for all of us.
Tom’s jealousy toward Matt is sometimes painfully obvious in the film, and Tom’s disappointment in the band’s life on tour makes it that much harder for him to accept his brother’s success. Maybe he was frustrated that thousands of people would worship his brother, who essentially lives a normal life, and he felt Matt was wasting his fame. Maybe it was purely just the lack of substance in his own life.
It sort of changed, in my mind, the conversation on who or what is a rock star. It wasn’t about Matt being better or more deserving than Tom. Matt dealt with the same frustrations that Tom did, but he channeled it through music. Tom, who had interests, hobbies and talents, just less popular ones, didn’t have thousands of cheering fans to aid him as he processed his doubts.
And that’s just the luck of the draw.
There will come a time when a few of us have to admit we’re not cut out for something. That our name isn’t going to to be in lights. And that’s okay. Although The National found fame and worldwide success, they are still doing a job.
We’re all just doing a job.
There is a societal attitude that if you work long and hard enough, you’ll get where you want to go. We can work our entire lives trying to reach a goal we might never fully grasp. And it’s not a testament of our character or work ethic—it’s not always meant to be.
I’m aware of how negative this might sound. It is not my intention to bring everyone down, it’s actually quite the opposite—there is no reason to fear being Tom.
I may never achieve the same level of success as Matt Berninger, but I have hope I can become an exception. I will always have something to work toward, and having something—an idea, a job or an opportunity to contribute creatively—and falling a little short is still better than having nothing at all.