Do our siblings understand us better than anyone else? “You’re not that much like me/You should know me better than that” Matt Berninger sings on I Should Live in Salt from The National’s sixth album, Trouble Will Find Me. An apology to his younger brother, Tom, its refrain is “I should live in salt for leaving you behind.” We see Matt working on the song in the studio towards the end of the 2014 documentary Mistaken for Strangers, which follows the band on a world tour just as their success skyrockets.
The disillusioned white-collar indie rockers return with their eighth album, I Am Easy to Find, on 17th May. The album is accompanied by a short film by Mike Mills, director of 20th Century Women and Beginners, starring Alicia Vikander. It’s an elegiac coming-of-age story that’s all dappled sunlight and gliding camera moves in soft monochrome. Mistaken for Strangers, directed by Tom Berninger, is endearingly shambolic by comparison. Like many great documentaries, it isn’t really about its obvious subject, and it hardly resembles a conventional music doc. Instead, it’s a surprisingly funny, surprisingly moving story of the unique, messy bond between siblings and the struggle to overcome self-doubt and create something, for others and for yourself.
Mistaken for Strangers introduces Matt and Tom as polar opposites. Matt is a thoughtful rock star grappling with newfound fame, while Tom, nine years younger, is an underachieving metalhead with a chip on his shoulder who still lives with their parents. “You’re too set in your ancient patterns of behaviour as brothers,” guitarist Aaron Dessner observes in an interview with Tom, “you’re the underdog and he’s the dominating alpha male.” Matt invites Tom on tour as a roadie and Tom elects to make a documentary about the band. But his vague attempts to portray the band are hampered by unresolved tension with his famous older brother. “I’m a little perplexed just because you guys said you wanted to get me into the movie to talk about me,” one of the Dessner twin brothers says with resignation, after Tom quizzes him about Matt.
The good-natured band members and their long-suffering tour manager initially tolerate Tom’s chaotic presence but the film becomes painfully farcical as he proves to be a truly awful roadie. He forgets the water bottles and towels for the band’s dressing rooms, gets flat-out drunk, loses the celebrity guest list at the LA show and gets left behind by the tour bus. He remains oblivious throughout, which means he unashamedly captures some very uncomfortable moments. “I feel like the only reason I’m here is because I’m your brother,” he complains to Matt, who replies incredulously that “The only reason you are here is because you’re my brother.” We share Matt’s frustration with Tom’s mistakes, and yet seeing the tour through Tom’s eyes means we feel for him as an outsider to someone he should feel close to. We see him filming Matt in his tour bus bunk while he’s asleep, shining a torch on his unknowing face like he wants him to sense that he’s there. Matt’s frustration understandably eventually boils over and Tom is fired.
Tom’s return to the Berninger family home to lick his wounds reveals, perhaps inevitably, that the brothers aren’t that different after all. The walls boast artwork from both brothers’ teenage years side by side. Their father says they used to worry about Matt’s adolescent temper, while their mother bemoans Tom’s reluctance to try anything new as a child: “You always wanted to quit things.”
Six months later Tom has installed a makeshift editing suite in Matt’s daughter’s playroom at his house in Brooklyn to piece the documentary together, but nothing seems to have changed. Technical problems at a preview screening sends him into a spiral of self-loathing and he seems paralysed by humiliation while Matt berates him for not being prepared. Their roles of underdog and alpha continue to be played. “Having Matt as my older brother kind of sucks because he is a rock star and I am not, and it has always been that way” Tom confesses, wiping his eyes. But a cut to a conversation with Matt back on the tour shatters this illusion. Matt talks about the soul-crushing experience of the band’s early shows, and of going home after playing to a completely empty venue and breaking down in tears. “We started putting that tension and anxiety and fear and humiliation into the music, just putting it out there made us closer to each other and for the people that did come to the shows that was the connection,” Matt says.
Mistaken for Strangers illustrates how creating anything at all can be a battle against yourself, and how we continue to play out those ancient patterns of behaviour with our siblings. But the film’s closing minutes suggest that Matt and Tom don’t want to imprison themselves and each other in the roles they performed growing up. Tom is finally able to admit how he let Matt down while, with a kind of loving desperation, Matt tells Tom to “Lean towards the things that make you like yourself, forget everything else.” Creative fulfilment doesn’t have to be dictated or limited by who you think you are, and perhaps the person you feel most alienated from might actually understand you the best. The documentary speaks to to the hope that seems to stubbornly ignite itself even in some of The National’s most downbeat songs. I Should Live in Salt, that expression of brotherly love and brotherly guilt, aches with regret and yet it soars like an unspoken emotion finally set free. Mike Mills’ collaboration with The National looks elegantly beautiful, but the fragile, funny, unglamorous joy of Mistaken for Strangers marks it as one of the greatest films about familial love, music and creativity ever made.