Revisiting The National’s 2013 documentary, Mistaken for Strangers

This week it was announced that The National were to be returning to Australian shores early next year. The shows are going to be some of the band’s biggest in the country, taking in the Sydney Opera House, Brisbane’s Riverstage and the Sidney Myer Music Bowl in Melbourne and will serve as a great introduction of The National’s highly anticipated new album, Sleep Well Beast.

Sleep Well Beast, The National’s seventh studio record, has already doled out some rich singles in “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness”, “Guilty Party” and “Carin at The Liquor Store”, each indicating the path the band has travelled down with this album, holing themselves up in Aaron Dessner‘s New York studio, Long Pond.

While we twiddle thumbs and continue to wait this one out (Sleep Well Beast is out via Remote Control on September 8th), we cast our focus back to 2013, when The National’s Mistaken For Strangers documentary was released.

We were at the Adelaide screening of Mistaken For Strangers, which was followed by a Q&A with The National frontman Matt Berninger and I remember feeling distinctly curious about how Berninger must be feeling about the film this many screenings in, given how it put his relationship with his brother (and documentary maker) Tom on screen in this way.

“You are way more famous than any of my friends,” Tom says to his brother in the film’s trailer, a statement rather than a conversation kick off point.

“I do have a brother, but he’s more of a metal head,” Matt then says later on. “I think he thinks indie rock is pretentious bullshit.”

The dynamic is set quite early.

When Tom joins The National on tour as a roadie, he’s warned of his place in this jigsaw puzzle. He’s not a band member. He needs to watch his partying and remember he’s not on the road to film, he’s there to work. As you’d expect, things don’t go to plan and we see the brothers’ relationship begin to show its cracks in a candid way.

Mistaken For Strangers is a brutally honest and yet heartfelt movie that anyone can relate to if they have an older sibling or close friend who has found themselves in a world you feel you are on the outer of.

“Having Matt as my older brother sucks,” Tom says in the film. “Because he’s a rock star and I am not, and it has always been that way.”

During the Q&A of the screening we attended, someone had asked Matt whether there were any songs on their new album – at the time, Trouble Will Find Me – that had been inspired by the process. He responded that, in a way, “I Should Live in Salt” reflected some of those emotions; the concept of leaving someone behind and the differences between two people that often grow with a relationship.

The film isn’t devoid of humour though. There are many funny insight to the life of a touring band that are presented through the film that will endear any fan of The National or their style of music to have this fly on the wall experience. Interviews with the Dessners and Devendorfs are like watching your brother’s mates play along with a school project; they’re friendly as ever but there’s no illusion that the conversations won’t inevitably boil down to the topic of Matt at some point.

I had forgotten that the Berningers fell out during this process, which brings more emotional weight to how Mistaken For Strangers culminated. This is a film not just about their relationship – deterioration and growth – but it’s also about how the band itself had clearly emerged from the shadows of ‘cool indie’ into being one of the world’s most beloved indie rock bands. Tom’s growth comes through equally as strong; he becomes more invested in the making of this film even though he encounters multiple obstacles and his role becomes as important as his brother’s – the weight that comes with delivering an end product to be proud of, whether on stage or behind the camera, is a driving point of the documentary.

Mistaken For Strangers can be purchased on iTunes.

The National return to Australia in February! Check out ticket sale times below.

February 21st | Sydney Opera House Forecourt, SYDNEY
Insiders Pre-sale from 9am AEST, August 29th
Main Pre-sale from 9am AEST, August 30th

February 27th | Riverstage, BRISBANE
Pre-sale from 9am AEST, August 31st
General public sales from 9am AEST, September 1st

March 1st | Sidney Myer Music Bowl, MELBOURNE
Pre-sale from 9am AEST, August 31st
General public sales from 9am AEST, September 1st

Ticket information can be accessed here.